Archive for December, 2010


Choosing a Music School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Organist’s Woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Great Musical Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 2010