Archive for October, 2010


Getting Music Out of the Way

This week I have to spend a few days in southern Thailand.  Flight schedules are such that to get here from Singapore without spending days in the air and extra nights in hotels, requires a flight to Bangkok and then another half way back again.  But when I learnt that the Israel Philharmonic were in Bangkok performing The Rite of Spring under Zubin Mehta, the dog-leg journey seemed fortuitous; I hadn’t heard the Israel Phil for the best part of 20 years and I was keen to hear if they were as brilliant as they once were.  More than that, a century ago (or so it seems) I was in a conducting masterclass with Zubin Mehta and of all the invaluable things I learnt from him, the most priceless was that the musical world would benefit enormously were I to avoid wielding my baton at it; if only some others I could mention had taken such advice to heart!  As it was, though, circumstances prevented my attending the concert, so I still have no idea what’s the current state of the Israel Phil or whether Maestro Mehta can still work his magic.

My reason for travelling to the remoter regions of Thailand was not to savour the sublime sounds of Stravinsky, but to examine young children in their graded music examinations.  So when, in the departure lounge at Changi Airport, I picked up the Straits Times and saw at the masthead a mini-headline “Grade 8 at 10”, I immediately set about rifling through the supplements, pages and columns (the Singapore paper was once the heaviest daily in circulation anywhere in the world, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it still is).  When I found it, the article was spread over half a page with copious photos of grinning young Singaporeans with a piano or violin in the background to show that it was musical.

Even before reading the text my examiner bile was up, and although the article itself was intelligently written, well balanced, offered no opinion and simply reported the facts as part of a whole series of pieces about young achievers, I spent much of the hour-and-a-bit in the air en route to Bangkok writing a response.  Of course, I left the paper behind and could not find anyway of sending it to the editor; the Straits Times website only gives details of how to post on to their forum, and as I’d read the piece in a print edition, I didn’t feel comfortable putting it up on the paper’s forum pages.  And I got no response after sending it to the writer’s email; the Straits Times gives their staff writers’ emails, but, like the “phone this number if my driving’s bad” notice on all Malaysian taxis, buses and trucks, I imagine it’s false.  So here’s what I wrote, and although you might want to read the original article (it’s probably on the internet somewhere), I think my comments are self-explanatory.

“ I read your special report “Grade 8 exams by 10 – Little Mozarts in the making” (24 October 2010) with dull resignation.

“For the regiments of music examiners who descend here four or five times a year, Singapore is notorious for its pushy parents and irresponsible teachers who consider the learning of music as some kind of competitive sport.  Rather than regarding it as opening up an avenue of pleasure, developing the senses physically, intellectually and emotionally, it is too often seen as an arid race-track where the only goal is grade 8 at the earliest opportunity. 

“The study of music is every bit as much an emotional as a physical and a mental activity, and while a talented child can be trained to excel in the last two, the first requires maturity and worldly experience which comes with age, not teaching.  It’s all very well to cite Mozart as an example of an early musical developer, but Singaporean parents would be ill-advised to hold up his miserable professional and adult life as a role model for their children.  More than that, he was living over 200 years ago and both society and its demands have changed dramatically since then.  There can never be a Mozart in our time, simply because he was a product of his age, and parents are sadly deluded if they think passing grade 8 by the age of 10 will lead to a life of whatever it is they imagine Mozart did.

“The parents and teachers of the children mentioned in your report have clearly acted responsibly in not pressurising their young charges to take exams against their will.  But have they satisfied themselves that their children’s desire to do grade 8 so early is the result of proper reasoning?  Are they doing it for the kudos it will bring them in the eyes of their peers rather than for the goals it sets for their purely technical talents?  And what do they intend to do afterwards?  The exceedingly small number of Singaporeans on the world musical stage set beside the exceedingly high number of grade 8 distinctions points to an awful lot of wasted time and money in the pursuit of a pointless qualification.  Passing grade 8 at any age (and 16 is considered the earliest) is no indication at all of musical skill; it is merely indication of an ability to pass the technical and artistic hurdles artificially created by the exam boards.

“More seriously, however, a rapid progression through the graded music examination system can do more harm than good, as students miss out on the essential experience and broadening of repertoire which is an absolute pre-requisite of even the most humble musical career.  One father was quoted as saying; “It will be all right if they lose interest one day”.  No it won’t.  It will have stunted a youthful imagination, irreparably damaged a child’s emotional development, and closed the door to an avenue of pleasure which is a symbol of the highest human civilization.”

In the normal course of events, I wouldn’t waste time reprinting on my blog irate letters to newspaper editors, but I was prompted to question people’s commitment to music by a sight I saw while having a drink in the open air bar of the hotel in which I’m staying.  Suddenly, as it does in these parts, a balmy evening was interrupted by a violent thunderstorm complete with lashing rain.  As the tables and chairs were rapidly moved under shelter in what is obviously a well-rehearsed routine, I saw the members of the professional “live” band leaving their island stand and rushing for cover, the scantily-clad singer covering her hair (but not her boobs, I was amused to see) with – wait for it – her copies of the songs she had been singing.  Clearly hair lacquer is more valuable than music – the sheets were clearly ruined by the rain, because I later saw them being thrown away – but obviously had the same consequences for this singer – it kept everything (except the boobs) very, very flat.

Now, a real musician’s instinct would surely be to protect the music – I’ve had to run from car to church with music stuffed down my shirt, just to keep it dry, before now.  Yet this singer and her band boys probably make a very nice living out of their nightly performances, yet here they were carelessly ruining what should have been their life-blood.  I didn’t wait to see what happened once the rain stopped and they went back on stage – presumably there was lots more music to use – but I wondered how a performing musician could regard the vital tools of her trade with such contempt.  Why is it that so many people seem to think that music is something which can be discarded so lightly.  In the old days bands would play as the ships went down (if the Titanic stories are to be believed); now, it seems, musicians would be the first to abandon their posts.  Why bother with music when something more interesting comes along?


Music Examiner Anecdotes – Part 2

The lovely thing about learning a musical instrument is that you can start it at any age. True, you are not going to become a child prodigy if you don’t have your first piano lesson until you are 65, but you are still going to get an awful lot of pleasure out of it. At least, that’s the theory and for the thousands who start learning after retirement, that’s often the case. But teachers often spoil these golden years by insisting on exams. Why? Do they serve any purpose for those whose only wish is to pursue music as a retirement hobby? True, I have a 70-year-old student who’s just done her DipABRSM and is eagerly preparing for her LTCL, but she’s an exception; she enjoys exams while others in her age range prefer an uneventful progress through pieces, killing time between meals and offending no one. Most examiners would urge teachers to pursue the second course with their students; I think we all agree that the most dreadful thing to encounter in the examination room is an elderly candidate tackling an early-grade practical examination. Tears from the candidate are almost guaranteed, and the examiner’s patience is put sorely to the test in ways which are likely to increase the likelihood of hypertension and possible heart damage.

There’s something about a music exam which brings out the very worst in people, and there’s something about the psychology of people of more advanced years that renders them unconscionably nervous when placed into the one-to-one examiner-candidate situation. In short, they do the daftest things. My heart always drops when the door opens and a person of more advanced years steps in to the examination room. I don’t commit the solecism of one former colleague who, without thinking, saw a candidate at the door and said “Hallo Bertha. Do sit down at the piano”, only to find a vast mound of vintage flesh towering over him and uttering the phrase “It’s MRS Hanson to you, young man”. Gone is the early lunch-break or the luxury of running on schedule; whatever the time allocated to the exam, with an older person it’s almost certain to overrun. It’s always a harrowing experience for the examiner; and it appears to be an utterly horrific one for the candidate. One wonders why they do it, but they do and, as a result, examiners’ stories always feature at least a few Tales of the Elderly.

Take an otherwise pleasant tour I did years ago to the outer islands off the north Scottish coast. The tour was made all the easier because bad weather prevented quite a few candidates from getting to the centre, so the usual terror of running behind schedule was averted. The last candidate of a morning was a grade 8 piano with the apparently innocuous name of Mary Macpherson (not really, but we must respect anonymity, although I suspect she is long since dead). Scheduled to take 30 minutes, I was already a good five minutes ahead of schedule when the steward entered the room alone. My heart raced. She was an absentee and I was going to get an unimaginably long lunch break? No. He had words he wished to utter in private before Mary came in. “You’re in for a time laddie! This one’s not quite right in the head!” And with that cryptic comment, he located a large waste-paper basket and placed it next to the piano. “Ye’ll be wanting this” and, with a smile, he departed.

Enter Mary. A tall vision dressed entirely in black; long black gloves, a black hat and, most alarming, a black mesh veil covering the face. In the years before you ever saw the burkha on British soil, this was a rare spectacle indeed. The Black Maria carried under her left arm a large pile of music and under her right a fresh box of paper tissues. Placing the music on the piano’s music stand and the tissues on the lid, she raised her veil with both hands, reached for a tissue, dabbed her eyes, and held the damp paper aloft while I scuttled up and moved the waste-paper basket; my steward had got it wrong – he’d put it to the right, while she was left-handed and needed it to the left. “Excuse me”, said the voice of great age from under the veil, “I’m a wee bit distressed”. (Another tissue used and discarded.)

“No need to worry”, I came up with the usual examiner cliché, “I’m sure you’ll be fine once you’ve started. Shall we have the scales first or would you prefer to begin with the pieces?”

“I dinnae know” was the unpromising reply. (Another tissue.)

 “Well, let’s do some scales. Play me D major” – best to start easy. Nothing. “When you’re ready, D major”.

Another tissue, this time not just wiping the eyes but blowing the nose. Sob! “I cannae do it!”

 “Well, let’s go back to that one later. How about B flat major”.

Tissue. Sob. “I cannae”. And so it went on through a litany of half a dozen random keys. We are now six minutes into a 30 minute exam and we haven’t actually had a note played.

“Shall we forget the scales for a moment and go on to the pieces? Which piece would you like to play first?”

Tissue. Sob. “I cannae”.

“Let’s try the Bach. It’s the Prelude and Fugue in C minor isn’t it?”

Tissue. Sob. “I cannae”.

“Go one, I’m sure once you have played something you’ll get into the swing of it” (and I might still stand a chance of a spot of lunch).

 “I cannae. I cannae”.

At this point examiner cool breaks. “Mary. I’m sure you’ve worked very hard for this exam. You’ve certainly had to pay the fee and come all this way to do it through the snow and wind. Stop wasting our time, pull yourself together and play. I don’t care whether you play it right or wrong. I just want to hear you play something. Anything!”

 Tissue. Sob. “I cannae do it!”

 “Yes, you can. Now stop all this nonsense and start! I don’t care whether you can play it or not. I don’t care if you make a mess of it. But play SOMETHING NOW!”

 Expecting more in the way of tissues (box by now thoroughly depleted), sobs and possibly even an angry retort, I was astonished by a fluent and fairly accurate account of Bach. Beethoven followed and Liszt wrapped up proceedings. We had a fair stab at the aural and sight reading, and although scales were never revisited (we were now approaching the hour and lunchtime had shrunk to 40 minutes) Mary passed with 103. She was even sufficiently calm as she left the room to thank me for “your kindness” (I hadn’t spotted any) and look forlornly at the totally empty box of tissues. “Leave that”, I told her, “I’ll throw it away for you”. When I eventually got out of the examination room and headed off for lunch (the steward had long since wandered off for his daily Haggis, Neeps and Tatties) I felt emotionally drained and rued the day Mary Macpherson had started to learn the piano.

But some weeks later I had to attend a meeting at the London headquarters of the ABRSM. Ronald Smith, the then Chief Executive, called me into his room and confronted me with a letter. “It’s about your recent tour to the Scottish Islands”. Anticipating a legitimate complaint about how I had lost my cool and told a candidate I didn’t care how she played, I was dumbstruck when Ronald read a letter praising me for my patience and kindness. I then related the whole episode to him and, amused, he read out a further extract from the letter; “My dear husband had passed away the morning of the examination. His dying wish had been for me to go and do my grade 8 exam and I had left his side for the last time to get to the centre on time. When I went into the room, my heart failed me, but it was when the examiner told me to pull myself together – the very words my poor departed husband used to say to me when I told him I could not do the exam – I heard his voice and I knew I had to do it. I don’t know whether I’ve passed or failed, but I am grateful for your kind examiner and his firm words. Because of him, I could fulfil my dear, departed husband’s dying wish”.

What seems to terrify adult candidates more than anything else is the scalework. Nervous, arthritis-ridden fingers seem to seize up at the very thought of C Major Hands Together In Similar Motion One Octave Apart. Some years ago the ABRSM had the bright idea of doing away with these and other tests and offering up a Performance Assessment which allowed the candidate to play whatever pieces they wanted and get a certificate afterwards. There was no pass or fail and no real comments given. Afterwards the examiner merely had a chat with the candidate and handed them a pre-engraved certificate. It should have been a good money-spinner, but probably was too bland and, although I see it still exists in a modified form, I gather it doesn’t have many takers, which is a great shame since it certainly filled a need. (The Trinity Guildhall certificates are rather more worthwhile, but they are kept locked away in a remote corner of the website and so few potential candidates ever know anything about them!)

The public centre in Dublin was the scene of my second most memorable Adult Candidate Encounter. Halfway through a morning of grade 1 pianos and grade 2 violins, I had Paddy O’Malley (or some such inescapably Irish moniker) as a Performance Assessment. You never knew what to expect with these – not even what instrument you were going to hear – but I was still surprised when the steward appeared at the door and suggested that I might like to open a few windows. It being November, it was all I could do to keep warm with the windows firmly shut and heating up full. But a whiff of Paddy as he entered had me off my chair and at the window latches faster than you could say “Top o’the mornin’ to ye”. Paddy, dressed in large brown and frayed woollen overcoat tied across his generous girth with string, baggy trousers which appeared on the edge of a great descent, open ended shoes which had long since abandoned the concept of polish and in which sole and body had, in a prelude to The Great Hereafter, parted company, and bearing a huge beard browned around the mouth where a cigarette clearly had only recently been extracted, smelt of pedestrian underpasses – that unique mix of ammonia, damp wool, stale tobacco, even staler cheap liquor and with a dominant nose of urine. Paddy also bore triumphantly on his chest a battered piano accordion. Thoroughly imbued with the ABRSM ethos that Everything Is Beneath My Dignity So You Don’t Surprise Me At All, I duly greeted Paddy and asked him what he was going to play for me.

“Ah, What would ye be wantin’ a body to play for ye at all, Sir?” was the somewhat elusive response.

“Well, what have you prepared?”

“Ah, ’tis loike this, Sir. I stand on O’Connell Street Bridge each day and play to me punters and they say, Ah, Paddy, you’re a wild feller altogether at the accordion, ye should get ye a sortifficit. So, to cut a long story short, Sir, and I know ye respectfulness’s time is precious, I’ve jost com to play to ye and get me sortifficit, Sir!”

“Ah! Well just play what you normally do and I’ll stop you when I’ve heard enough”.

And with that Paddy launched into the most athletic, energetic, ebullient bit of accordion playing I’ve ever witnessed. Stamping the foot, singing along, calling out what may have been racing odds or possibly verses from the Rosary. Bits of everything came out of the accordion (physical as well as musical, a KitKat wrapper did end up on the floor as well as a couple of chewed cigarette ends) and I was hard-pressed to stop the man once he was into his stride. It was fun and quite good, and I duly handed him his certificate. The inclination was also to hand him an Irish 50p piece (and I think he expected no less) but I desisted; ABRSM examiners don’t do that sort of thing. However I did venture out on to the Dublin streets some days later and there, large as life and as aromatic as ever, was Paddy playing his accordion with his “sortifficit” duly displayed in an attempt to warrant a larger donation from the passing crowd. And, to be frank, he deserved every penny he got. If only every adult candidate was that much fun.


MPO Chamber Tour

Long-established orchestras do this sort of thing as a matter of course, and the Malaysian Philharmonic has certainly sent small groups of its musicians around the country over the past 10 years to give chamber concerts in places where full-scale symphony orchestras cannot reach. But the Chamber Tour which members of the MPO are about to undertake is a significant milestone in the orchestra’s history. It marks, in effect, the first practical manifestation of what I described elsewhere as the MPO’s re-branding exercise; moving from being an international orchestra to a national one, with a deliberate intention of serving the wider community in Malaysia above and beyond its desire to stand alongside the Big Boys of symphonic music.

In a wonderfully warm and perceptive introduction to the first concert outside KL in the MPO’s chamber tour, a member of the Negeri Sembilan royal family welcomes the MPO with the observation that “for centuries, concerts like these were a regular fixture in the great European courts where music was an integral part of life”. This ties in rather neatly with one of the purposes behind the original creation of the MPO; namely to be the possession of a wealthy master (in this case an oil company) which could use the orchestra to show its cultural and aesthetic credentials to international competitors (and potential customers). That’s long been forgotten in a sea of politically-inspired recriminations about expenditure on minority interests at a time when rising oil prices were causing real problems to the ordinary folk of Malaysia. I feel very strongly indeed that the MPO management did not handle those criticisms at all well and, for a time, they clearly lost direction and focus. A few seasons of aimless meandering around not sure whether to call itself an international-class orchestra or a drain on the resources of a nation which didn’t really want it, saw morale drop and some fine people leave. But an inspired new management team and a lot of fresh blood has given the orchestra a focus again, and this seems to be the first concrete manifestation of the new-style MPO.

What has always been forgotten by those critics who should have known better – largely expatriate Malaysian musicians who resented seeing money they feel should have been their birthright spent on bringing foreigners into shape Malaysia’s classical music identity – is that before the MPO and its performing home the DFP came along, there was nothing. As a long-time resident of Malaysia, here long before the MPO had even been thought of, I am well aware that those few classical music performances which did exist pre-1998 were unutterably bad; there’s no other word for it. How I used to cringe at dire performances, which would have shamed any UK infant’s school orchestra, and dread the plastic chairs, the persistent talking and the background noise which were an accepted part of any musical performance. How I shuddered at ABRSM High Scorers’ concerts when young people, possibly hoping for professional careers overseas, were forced to play in an environment which was a cross between a bus shelter and a highway rest area (no wonder so few of them ever came back). On those very few occasions when professional orchestras or chamber ensembles arrived (usually en route to Australia and with a view to having a warm up before an un-critical audience) they gave ropey performances in ropier places – often hotel ballrooms with the piped music still playing. I recall a visit by a London orchestra to one of our pride-and-joy Hilton hotels in the late 1980s and having to argue for hours with reception to turn the music off in the ballroom for the concert. The response was, of course, that “if we do that, people will complain”. Indeed, one had similar problems when the MPO first went to Kuching; on that occasion it was the security guards’ walkie-talkies which were obliged to crackle throughout a concert. If nothing else, the MPO has caused the climate to change and people in Malaysia are beginning to know how to listen, and are realising that listening requires concentration, and that concentration leads to appreciation. It’s unlikely that the audiences over the chamber tour will be quite so willing to accept the kind of bad listening environments that were the norm 20 years ago.

But in its history, the MPO has never really done much to expand into the community. True, the education departments have taken in schools, hospitals and the like, but the orchestra itself hasn’t done much in the way of going out and playing to ordinary people. The facilities aren’t there, of course; but why not? If the MPO went out more, the demand would grow and the facilities would follow; look at China where towns are crawling over themselves to have new concert-halls built (all a little daft since orchestras are abysmal and audiences little more than moronic). So this chamber tour is really establishing the new thinking; that the MPO is not confined to the DFP and is willing and able to go anywhere in Malaysia.

Most exciting of all is the fact that it’s not Haydn or Mozart string quartets which are going out on this tour, but something far more intriguing; the kind of programmes which would draw musicians in from far and wide, so rarely is it heard even in the great concert halls of the world. The programmes avoid the Classics like the plague, the nearest thing we get to standard chamber repertoire being Schumann’s Piano Quintet. Instead we have chamber concertos by Shostakovich and Bach, not to mention a Concerto by Vincent d’Indy which has been all but forgotten over the past decades – indeed only one recording is available, and that on a very rare label indeed which you would be lucky to find outside eastern Europe. We have some Latin-American jazz, some pastiche-Baroque, some rarefied Prokofiev and an absolutely mind-boggling selection of 20th century pieces based on Ligeti’s weird Musica Ricercare which includes some Steve Reich and a movement from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time which has been banned on no less than three occasions from the stage of DFP. This isn’t easy-going music for the mass appeal, but innovative and exciting programming which shows that, at long last, the MPO planners have realised that the Malaysian audience don’t have preconceptions; they just like to hear good music well played and, for them, Mozart is no more attractive than Messiaen, Ligeti or Steve Reich.

My hope is that this chamber tour (and as 15-16 players are involved, it’s not quite as chamber as all that) will serve its purpose, reveal that the MPO is serious about its commitment to the people of Malaysia and, along the way, do nothing to undermine its aspirations to stand on the world stage alongside the likes of the LPO, the NYPO and, even, the BPO.


Writing Diploma Programme Notes

After talking with diploma candidates in Hong Kong last week, I’ve come away with a strong sense that the one area in which they really are lacking in clear guidance is in the requirement to write programme notes. The ABRSM produces a booklet which doesn’t provide the kind of clear and concise information which candidates seek, while Trinity Guildhall offers nothing other than the comment in the syllabus that “A useful guide to the kind of approach looked for may be taken from professional public concert programmes”. I have to say I felt this was adequate until it dawned on me that both the standard of programme notes given at professional concerts varies widely – many do not even provide a programme booklet – and that a large number of candidates would have not experienced programme notes written in English, so would not be too sure how relevant these are to exam requirements.

For the past 18 months or so I have been working on a book about Putting Music Into Words and have prepared a chapter on writing programme notes for diplomas. It’s still a long way off completion, but I thought it might be helpful to put up some extracts to give diploma candidates some idea of what was expected. If you follow this guide there is absolutely no guarantee that you will pass this section of the exam or even avoid some criticism from the examiners – just as would be the case if you copied slavishly what you hear on a disc when it comes to performing a certain work – but you will be working along the right lines.

Remember, the Programme Notes, including the Title (or Programme) page, must be presented in a neat and tidy manner, preferably using word processing software. Photographs or other illustrations are not expected, but can add to the visual impact of your notes. Do NOT give any details of your own background or include any personal messages (such as dedications or votes of thanks to teachers or to the examiner), and please remember to put your candidate number and the date of the exam on the Title page. The first thing is to present on the title sheet of your programme the full list of music you are going to perform; composers, titles, movements and timings. Give the composers with their full names and dates in brackets, followed by full titles of works with opus/catalogue numbers; the convention is to place such numbers after the title separated by a comma, but putting them in brackets is also acceptable. If the work has a nickname, place this after the title, separated by a dash, and then give the total playing time for the complete work in brackets. Then, under the title, give the list of movements (if any). For example;

 Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) – Violin Sonata No.1 in G, Op.78 – “Regenlied” (27’00)

 i.Vivace ma non troppo


 iii.Allegro molto moderato

In most cases you can get all this information from your copy of the music, but failing that, any professional recording will give it. It is essential to present the pieces in your programme in the order in which they will be played. Once you have decided on the playing order (and try to select an order which makes sense when you listen to it, NOT when you put it down on paper – Bach, Beethoven, Bartók and Birtwistle might not make much sense when you listen to them in that order, although on paper it looks nice and neat with a pleasing chronological sequence), time each COMPLETE work carefully by playing it several times over and seeing how long it takes from beginning to end without interruption, then put down the time TO THE NEAREST HALF MINUTE; any timing more precise than that is wholly inappropriate in a live recital and lays you open to criticism from the examiner. Do not give timings for individual movements, but for whole works.

Then to the notes themselves which need to be within the word-counts specified in the syllabus; ATCL (400-700 words), LTCL (800-1100 words), FTCL (1200-1600 words), DipABRSM (990-1210), LRSM (1620-1980) and FRSM (4050-4950). Please give the TOTAL word count for all except the first (programme) page. There are certain important formalities to observe with each specific syllabus (you must not give your name in the ABRSM programme note, for example) but the basic content is uniform across the syllabuses. Programme notes, whether for diploma or for any other purpose, have three basic elements as outlined below.

1. Biography. This is to introduce the composer to your audience, to assess his place in musical history and to give some outline of his major achievements as a composer. It would typically include details of his nationality, his training, his position in society, his output and his current reputation.

2. Background. This puts the work you are playing into its historic context, explaining why it was written, for whom, when it was written, when and where (and by whom) it was first performed, and where it stands in the output of the composer and the repertoire of the instrument.

3. Analysis. This describes in some detail the major points to listen out for in the work. In the context of a programme note, an analysis is more in the nature of a basic road-map rather than a detailed breakdown of technical structure. Think of it more as a listener’s guide than an academic presentation of form and structure.

The balance between these three aspects, the detail you go into in each and the length you devote to each depends wholly on the context. In the case of examination diplomas, for example, you would probably have very little biography, devoting most of the space to background and, to a lesser extent, analysis. However, if performing a work by a little-known composer, a little more biographical detail might be appreciated. Two important things to remember when writing programme notes is that, while in almost every case you will have found your material from other sources (programme notes are not the place to publish original scholarly research), you must always put it into your own words or, if you find a quote which you cannot think of re-writing in any clearer way, ALWAYS put it in quotation marks and acknowledge the author – ie. The movement’s main theme has been described by Dr Ewald Kooiman in his biography of the composer as “not a melody which will linger long in the memory once heard” – but NEVER use footnotes nor include a bibliography or list of references. You will impress the examiners with your background reading by using these quotes and manage to avoid charges of plagiarism, but avoid using quotations which do not have named authors, as these will invariably have been précised from other sources, and then you will be risking allegations of plagiarism. So if you find a quote you want to use from, say Wikipedia or an un-signed programme note, DON’T USE IT!

 Remember, also, to be consistent in your language and use of terminology. If using American English, remember to re-spell those words (ie. colour, accommodation) which you may have found in a British English reference book, and always use the approximate terms – half-note, quarter-note, measure in American English: minim, crotchet, bar in British English. Any inconsistency will be leapt on by the examiners as proof of the notes not being in your own words. If presenting notes in non-English, ensure your original is presented alongside the translation.

Biography: You do not need to waste time by giving the composer dates again (they are on the Title page) and do NOT say things like “Mozart is a Classical composer”, which actually means nothing at all in this context, but for the biography, simply give some information about the composer which is relevant to the work you are playing and also shows your knowledge of the composer beyond his piano music – ie. “Mozart wrote his first piano sonata in 1775 when he was 19. At the time he was in Munich to handle the final preparations for the ninth of his 20 operas, La finta giardiniera”. As you progress up the diploma ladder, the biography should show a little more detail of the composer’s life leading to the time he wrote the work, but even at the highest level, avoid any general detail in this area as it is irrelevant to your target audience. Basic biographical material is easily found at (click on “composers”) or in basic reference books such as The Penguin Dictionary of Music or The Oxford Companion to Music.

Background. A lot of the information you need here will be found in the music you use in the examination room. Often publishers introduce the work with some interesting essay, and at the very least a date of publication (sometimes even of composition) is given at the bottom of the first page or at the end of the work. Look at the dedication; who was it written for? Otherwise, you need to dig quite deep to find material for this. Without doubt the very best reference to find the information you need is Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians; good libraries stock it, and it is available (at a cost) online at Look also at CD booklets and concert programme notes (sometimes you can find the latter online, but usually you need to pay to get access to the best ones) and do not forget to check out the publisher’s website. In many cases, the publishers provide a lot of background detail, especially when it comes to more recent or obscure works. Contemporary composers nearly all have their own website, but beware of their tendency to be a little more extravagant with facts than is warranted!

Analysis. You have to do this yourself! What you must do at DipABRSM/ATCL level is listen to the music and recognise what its main features are. Try to write a guide for the listener so that they know what to expect, but avoid technical language or overly-precise references; programme notes should not refer to bar-numbers, nor should they attempt to show how clever the writer is in using specialist technical terms. At LRSM/LTCL level, a little more technical knowledge is expected – here you could mention details of form and tonality in guiding the listener through the music – while at Fellowship level, although you must still avoid excessively academic detail, try to show a deep personal knowledge of the structure and design of the work. At every level, though, it is a listening guide rather than a detailed academic analysis that’s called for.

Finally, use your programme notes to give some information about your own interpretation of the work. While “I like this piece because it reminds me of my pet cat” is quite inappropriate, “Having heard recordings of the work by Sophie-Anne Mutter and Joshua Bell, I feel that the ornamentation given in the edition I use is excessive and have chosen to follow what I have heard on those recordings”, shows both an intelligent approach to preparing your performance and justifies why you deviate from the copy of the music you have passed to the examiner.

Here’s the sort of thing we might expect in an ATCL programme note (the composers and works are wholly fictitious):


César Juillet (1899-1977); Preludio Dansée (4’00)

Domenico Giulio (1825-1867); Fantasia in D minor, Op.4 No.2 (7’00)

Ludwig Amadeus Schicht (1799-1860) ; Sonata No.10 in G (16’00)


ii.Adagio espressivo


Peter Vaskin (b.1967); A Familiar Creature, Op.566 (6’00)

Programme Notes

A pupil of Theodore Dubois at the Paris Conservatoire, César Juillet had to abandon his studies when his father was killed on active service in the First World War and he was obliged to take a job with the French railways. From then on he composed only intermittently when his duties permitted, his Preludio Dansée being just his third work for piano and was published in 1960. It was first performed by Marie Céleste in the Grand Hall of the Paris Conservatoire on 4th August 1959 and makes much use of loud and heavy chords as well as strong and repetitive rhythms which gives the work its dancing character. I also think that this driving rhythm was probably inspired by the sound of a moving train, something which would have been very familiar to Juillet from his career as a train driver.

Domenico Giulio was well-known for his operas, of which he wrote around 50, most of which were first performed at the opera house in his native Rome. He also wrote several purely instrumental works, but the set of “Six Fantasias” for piano published by Ricordi in 1930 are actually arrangements of numbers from his operas made by the Italian pianist Lucia Stillini. The Second Sonata in D minor opens with a meditative theme from the opera Molto Tristessa and builds to a dramatic climax, at which point the famous chorus from La Travolta appears before the music subsides to its quite conclusion with a sad melody from Di San Marco.

Schicht’s 37 published piano sonatas were all written during the last 20 years of his life, during which time he was Director of Music at the Court of King Leopold XVI of Sweden. No.10 was published in 1842 with a dedication to the composer and pianist Olga Schmidt, who possibly gave the first performance but, as Peter Wink writes in the introduction to the published Urtext edition, “There is no concrete evidence of a performance before 1918 when the one surviving copy of the work re-emerged following the reconstruction of the University library in Göttingen and was played by Emil Leen in the celebrations to mark the ending of war in Sweden”. While its first movement follows the customary Sonata Form outline with two contrasting themes – one fast in the major key and a slower one in the relative minor – the second movement is an expressive Adagio which shows, in the words of Brian Williams, “Schicht’s unfulfilled interest in writing for the human voice”. In keeping with the famous recording of the work by Laurens Loopie, I have chosen to observe all the repeats in the short but lively concluding Rondo.

My recital closes with a humorous piece by the English composer and jazz pianist Peter Vaskin, who spent much of his early career as a session musician with such notable bands as BoyzBinz and GIrlzGrinz. A highly prolific composer for the piano – he wrote his Op.700 when he was still in his early 30s – this piece was inspired by a passage from Shakespeare’s Othello – “Good wine is a good familiar creature” – and cleverly portrays the uneasy progress of a person befuddled by alcohol as he attempts to perform Offenbach’s famous Can-Can. It was written for the Edinburgh Festival in 1992 when he performed it in the open air on an electric piano.


Award-Winning reviews

What a sham title!  These are NOT reviews which won awards, but reviews of discs which won awards at the Gramophone Awards yesterday.  These are my published throughts when the discs first came out.

William Byrd – Infelix Ego : The CArdinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood : Hyperion CDA67779

When Andrew Carwood writes in the introduction to this disc that Elizabethan England produced “an amazing array of artistic talent”, he might just as easily have been referring to our own age.  Certainly some of England’s finest current vocal talent is lined up here, and as a display of the very best Britain (we have to acknowledge that there is at least one Welsh voice present) can produce doing what they do best of all, this disc is a great showcase.  It is also very much the crowning glory of The Cardinall’s Musick’s survey of Byrd’s Latin Church Music, a series which began on ASV back in 1997 where it ran for nine discs before, in 2006, heading off to Hyperion for three more.  All 12 discs have offered up reference-standard performances of Byrd’s music, and here, with the final disc in the series, we have truly exceptional performances of some of his most popular motets.

That said, these performances do not recreate in any way the music of Byrd as the Elizabethans would have heard it.  There may be textural authenticity here and the interpretations may have been governed by deep scholarly investigation into the performance practices of Byrd’s time, but what we have is not so much performances which attempt to recreate the sound world of Byrd’s day as to bring to our ears the same measure of integrity and faithfulness to the original conception as facsimile versions of first editions do to our eyes.  This is Byrd uncluttered by the failings and idiosyncrasies of musical attitudes in the ensuing four centuries and restored to a kind of glory the composer, in his wildest dreams, could never have imagined.  That Byrd’s music not only survives such microscopic attention to detail and nuance, but positively flourishes under it, speaks volumes not only of its original quality but of the artistic integrity of The Cardinall’s Musick.

 Superbly poised entries, fluid textures, immaculately turned phrases and beautifully moulded cadence points all give this a strange combination of delicacy and sturdiness – an old master reprinted on vinyl, if you like – which is ultimately deeply satisfying both to the ear and the intellect.  These are thoroughly assured performances which leave no room for technical or musical doubt.  The contrasting dynamics at the start of Domine, salve nos dignus are so precisely measured and carefully conveyed in this performance that one suspects hours of painstaking preparation and discussion have gone into this one musical moment. As much care and preparation has also gone into the tiny 45-second Deo gratias as to the weighty Infelix ego, precisely 17 times its length (a work Carwood describes as “the crowning glory of Byrd’s achievement”), while Haec Dies, possibly Byrd’s most frequently-performed piece of sacred music, bounces along as happily as ever, but with glorious crystalline transparency of texture.  There is an almost languid quality about this performance of Cunctis diebus, an object lesson in unaccompanied part-singing, each voice perfectly in its place, the blend delightful to the ear, the lines warmly embracing each other and the overall architecture lovingly moulded by Andrew Carwood’s subtle and distinguished direction. These are very much yardstick performances, offering a hitherto unattainable ideal which reveals the true glory of Byrd’s creation.

 Coupled with a warm and fulsome recording and the tremendously lucid notes which characterise everything Carwood handles on disc, this disc in its own right stands as one of the most satisfying recordings of Elizabethan church music to have emerged in recent years.”

 Comparing two Verdi Requiems, including Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia / Antonio Pappano : EMI 698936-2

 “Pappano’s is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon recordings which takes a familiar old friend and infuses it with so much life and colour that it forces you to hear it anew.  It’s as if an old master has suddenly turned up with its colours vividly refreshed and its detail etched with renewed clarity;  we’ve seen it a thousand times but now realise we’ve never really looked at it before.  Of course there is the obvious fact that these are home-grown Italian opera forces performing a work which is an essential part of their heritage.  But, more than that, the passion, the emotional impact and the sheer electricity of the whole thing creates an impact which is as powerful as it is inspiring.  Wrapped up in an exemplary recording from EMI, there really isn’t much to find fault with here.  Simply put, you won’t find a better Verdi Requiem than this and, personal preferences for famous recordings from the past aside, this would seem to be the recording par excellence in a field which already boasts some classic recordings among a truly stellar line-up of great singers, orchestras and conductors.

 The real measure of this recording comes with the very opening of the Dies irae.  Yes, we all know it’s coming, but the violence of the outburst, the sheer earth-shaking power of the drum beats and the astonishing virtuosity of the massed violins as they make their frenzied descent, not to mention the immaculately poised fanfare building up with almost painful inevitability to the great explosion of the Tuba mirum still take the breath away.  Here is an edge-of-the-seat drama which listeners have often tended to imagine rather than actually witness, and when it’s presented to you with such awesome power as this, the effect is unspeakably exciting.

 René Pape’s presentiment of the Day of Judgement (“Mors stupebit”) has a ghastliness and latent horror which sends shivers down the spine – and, again, heaps of praise must be laid on the engineers who have captured his whispered menace with such clarity – while Sonia Ganassi exudes almost Wagnerian majesty as she warns of the terrible book of deeds and of the inescapable punishment ahead.  The lyrical and endlessly mellifluous Anja Harteros exudes sympathy while an already outstanding quartet of soloists is greatly distinguished by tenor Rolando Villazón who evokes such a vivid sense of pathos and supplication in the “Ingemisco”   – surely one of the best performances of this notoriously demanding solo on record – that one can almost see him on stage kneeling alone in front of some cleverly lit icon.  It all has a powerful aura of the opera stage about it; and, indeed, that is only right, for what is Verdi’s Requiem if not an opera which transcends the conventions of staging.  It is often forgotten by those who criticism the work for breaking with the traditions of the Catholic Requiem Mass that Verdi himself was an agnostic and opposed to organised religion.

 Taken from three live performances given over four days in the Santa Cecilia Hall of Rome’s new Auditorium Parco della Musica, there is a tangible sense of the “live” occasion, not just in the coughing and shuffling of a native Italian audience, but in the strong sense of communication which affects everyone involved.  Certainly the chorus and orchestra seem to have raised their game for Antonio Pappano and there is some exceptional orchestral playing here. 

 It is unfortunate, to put it mildly, that Colin Davis and the LSO have brought their Verdi Requiem out in, as it were, the same breath, for it is impossible to listen to it without constantly seeking comparison with the Italian forces marshalled so thrillingly under Pappano.  And few of those comparisons are in their favour.  If the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia were not on such cracking form, perhaps the LSO’s Dies irae might have more impact; but I’m not so sure.  This seems a little lacklustre and certainly the precision of the string playing leaves something to be desired.  But there I go again; would it seem so unsatisfactory if I had not listened to it immediately after a handful of play-throughs of the Pappano recording (and I confess to handful of back-to-back play-throughs, because with music-making of that quality, once is never enough)?  In places the LSO Chorus do seem to be straining at the leash and while the LSO Live engineers have given them a more forward placing that the EMI chaps have done for the Romans, there are moments when they seem over-stretched – the “Tuba mirum” being a case in point.  That said, on the whole the English choral singing has more polish and assurance about it – possibly were the Italians less recessed in the recording picture we might spot a few more faults in them – and if it doesn’t have the same Italianate passion about it, there will be those who prefer the more plain-speaking English style. 

 Davis’s team of soloists is uneven.  Karen Cargill is more than a match for Anja Harteros in the “Liber scriptus”, and, alongside a glorious Christine Brewer, their “Recordare” duet has real pathos; here is one number in which Davis’s forces outdo their Italian counterparts.  But I can’t warm to John Relyea who seems very uneasy in the “Confutatis” while elsewhere his delivery lacks authority, and Stuart Neill, for all the effort he puts into it, cannot begin to match the sheer panache of Villazón’s “Ingemisco”.

 There’s no doubt that Colin Davis has a very impassioned and committed view of this staple of the repertoire, and while at times his vision does not find an entirely sympathetic outlet in these forces, it has to be said that this is a most creditable Verdi Requiem. That said, those seeking a Verdi Requiem to end all Verdi Requiems will have found their utopia in Pappano, a recording which is very much in a league of its own.”


Gramophone Awards and CD sales

You don’t look to blogs for reliable statistics, unbiased facts or 100% accurate information. Of course conscientious bloggers check their statistics as much as possible and try to get their facts right; after all what’s the value of any personal opinion and argument if it’s based on a false premise? I think I’m a conscientious blogger and do what I can to ensure the accuracy of my facts and figures. But after having received so much comment about my pieces on CD shops in south east Asia, I thought I had better try and look into the matter a little more closely. The real things which set me off were Rupert Christiansen’s blog entry concerning the latest figures emerging from the British Phonographic Institute ( and today’s Gramophone Awards ceremony at The Dorchester in London.

Rupert Christiansen is a fine and upstanding critic for the Telegraph in London and he’s never one to court controversy or make sensationalist claims; unlike his predecessor Norman Lebrecht who would go out of his way to do both. So when he starts on about the death of the CD, one has to take him seriously. Yet, talking to Record Industry executives and those in the business, it’s clear that they see the CD as having quite a bit of life left in it. For my part, I don’t see an alternative just yet. Downloads and streaming get you the music (if not always in perfect audiophile quality), but they don’t all give you the full documentation, which most genuine classical music lovers demand, Christiansen had written his piece in June just after the figures on annual CD sales IN THE UK were released by the British Phonographic Institution; and they were certainly deeply depressing showing not just CD sales down but the market share for classical down even further.  On top of that, I was told today that last month fewer classical CDs were released than at any time over the past 25 years; which might seem to add fuel to the fire stoked by Christiansen’s piece. 

But hold on a moment.  The Gramophone Awards showed that the CD industry is still very much alive and kicking, and if numbers of sales are diminishing, how does that square with the undoubted fact that the contenders for awards get stronger and more numerous by the year.  The obvious answer might be that with the market shrinking, it’s quality rather than quantity which matters – and I’m not sure that’s not a very good thing.  As one of the judges for the Awards I know just how hard and onerous a task it is listening through all those fantastic CDs and trying to decide which is better than another.  You’ll find a list of winners at and very interesting reading it makes.

The first thing that will hit anyone between the eyes is the Record of the Year; the CD which obtained the greatest number of votes from the panel.  You might be tempted to expect that to be something vocal. crossover or, even, operatic.  You might expect it to be a big orchestral piece or a star pianist.  Not a bit of it.  The assembled critics adjudged a very specialist recording of William Byrd’s sacred music to be the best CD released in the last year.  I raise my hands in surprise, and although when I reviewed the disc for International Record Review (and my published reviews of this and other Award winners is posted on this blog elsewhere) I recommended it for the ultimate “Outstanding” place, even I thought of it more as a niche thing than a world-beater.  So, you might think, these critics like to show their esoteric credentials by voting for out-of-the-way stuff.  But then, take the winner of the Choral category – yet another recording of the Verdi Requiem – or the Instrumental category – a populist recital by that phenomenal pianist, Arcady Volodos.  No, quality is the defining factor and when a company can invest so much of its resources into what might seem a niche release as Hyperion have done with their Byrd disc, one suspects that the CD industry is by no means dead.

It is virtually impossible to obtain precise figures about CD sales in such markets as Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong; but don’t be swayed by the bad news coming from the UK and USA; as Live! Singapore showed in June, whatever might be the situation elsewhere, in south east Asia, Classical music is very much on the up.  Nobody should write classical music CDs off just yet when there are still such wonderful things coming on to the market, and if the situation is bad in the old markets of Europe and North America, does that justify us in south east Asia meekly following their trends and denying ourselves some wonderful musical experiences?

October 2010