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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.


Live vs Recorded Music

There is an animated funny doing the rounds on the internet at the moment in which a musician booked for a wedding is confronted by a Wedding Organizer.  As a large musical instrument is manhandled into the venue, the Wedding Organizer complains to the musician; “This music looks too loud!”.  The musician replies; “Music is something you judge by hearing, not looking”.

A clever little quip but sadly out of touch with reality. 

It was the music video (and surely that’s an oxymoron if ever there was) which finally killed off live performances of pop music; when the attraction is more the heavily edited and produced visuals than the music itself, a live performance is only ever going to be a pale shadow.  Even the terminology of pop fans reflects this; “Have you seen xxxx on YouTube?”, rather than “Have you listened to xxxx?”. But, there again, from its origins in the 1920s as short musical lollipops designed to fit on to a single side of a 78 rpm record, pop music has always been intended primarily for consumption on record, and one only needs to attend a “live” show and see the banks of speakers, theatrical paraphernalia and vast electronic gadgetry – not to mention the performers’ obligatory cheek microphones, like so many miniature face-tattoos, which have no connection to any method of amplification – to realise that the intention is to recreate as closely as possible the recording, even down to the performers miming to it.

Classical music, on the other hand, has always been designed for live consumption and although the advent of the record has opened up the world of this great art to vast audiences who would never otherwise have heard it live, one must never forget that even the most brilliant of recordings can only be a poor relation to a live performance.  I have often held up to ridicule the loony Malaysian “critic” who compared (unfavourably) a live performance of the MPO performing some work or other with a studio recording of Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic – I liken it to comparing the handling of a Perodua Kancil with an Airbus A380; they both set out to do something totally different but they do have in common the aim of moving people from one place to another.  He was not a unique basketcase, and too many so-called music-lovers believe music exists only on disc.

Of course, CDs (or any other type of recording) do provide hours of listening pleasure to us, and our lives would be infinitely the poorer without them.  In my case recordings have opened up whole vistas of musical repertoire I could never have hoped to hear live.  For example, I am a passionate admirer of Stanford’s symphonies, yet I’ve never heard any of them performed live.  My recordings are tantalizing, but until I hear a live performance I will never be entirely sure whether or not these are, as I strongly suspect, some of the greatest British symphonies of all time.  No matter how strong the temptation to regard recorded music as the ultimate musical experience, we must always recognise that it is only a substitute for the real thing, and when the opportunity to attend a live performance comes along, we must grab it with both hands. 

Why?  It comes down to my stock answer when asked if I have heard a certain piece of music.  If, like the Stanford, I only know it through a CD, I reply; “I’ve heard a recording, but I’ve never listened to it live”.  The crucial thing there are the verbs hear and listen – the former implies a passive activity, the latter an active one.  When you hear a recording, it’s there and you need do nothing about it.  In fact, even as a professional CD-listener, I readily confess to being distracted while CDs are playing.  I set the thing spinning with all good intentions, then the Call of the Coffee is heard or the Pull of the Phone, and my mind wanders.  Those distractions do not (or at least should not) enter the concert hall where the environment is carefully crafted to ensure full active concentration on the music.  Only when you concentrate exclusively on the music do you really listen to it.  It’s so easy to take Karajan and his Berlin Phil out of the jewel case and relish the sound while you go about your daily chores, but it takes a superhuman effort actually to listen to music on disc, and I suspect very few do.

Recently, however, I’ve come across a composer who has thus far written exclusively for recordings but is now setting out to promote it in live performances.  For some time now I’ve been aware of the Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, who celebrates his 60th birthday this year.  I was aware that he wrote film music, primarily for Japanese animated movies (a genre which doesn’t really impinge on my consciousness), and that his audio-recorded soundtracks for these movies have developed something of a cult following.  Indeed, I am increasingly being asked what I think of his music.  The answer has always been, and still is, nothing.  I’ve never heard it (to my knowledge) nor yet sought it out, but when the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra notified me that they were to devote an entire concert to his music I decided to delve further.  I was actually on the point of rooting out a CD when the HKPO told me that he had decided to write his own notes for the concert and that I would just be required to edit them into readable English.  The notes duly arrived.

An essential function of writing programme notes is that the writer makes the reader WANT to listen to the music.  I try to do this even with Chopin, whose every note I find execrable, but when a composer describes his own music as “pleasant”, “delightful” and “magnificent”, I switch off, assuming that such words are an attempt to instil preconceptions into listeners’ minds and prevent them forming their own independent opinions.  However, I realised that Hisaishi had written his notes in Japanese and the translator may have added a gloss to it or, more likely, failed to translate what would be perfectly normal Japanese idioms into English equivalents.  All the same, I left it as it was and, I have to say, were it not for the very fervent advocacy for his music from some quarters, I might have done the same to his music.

But, while my ears are precious and I don’t like them being polluted by the force-fed noise which is what so much music designed to be heard on record rather than live is all about, Hisaishi has clearly decided that his music deserves the legitimacy of a live performance and, as such, deserves being listened to.  I won’t be running out to buy the discs before I hear the music live, but when I’ve attended the HKPO concert on 8th or 9th December (follow the HKPO link to book your own tickets) and if I do like what I hear, I will certainly buy the discs to remind me of how the music sounded live.  Surely, that’s the best way to approach listening to music on record.


My Favourite Composer

Conservatories and other music finishing schools are pretty good at putting the final polish on a musician’s skills as a performer, but they miss out on some vital aspects of training for a life in music which otherwise take decades to learn.  They don’t generally seem to teach students how to present themselves on paper – either in writing their biographies or explaining their programmes – and they don’t teach them how to present themselves on stage – stage etiquette is sadly lacking from nearly every young graduate from a music school.  But the most important lesson that they don’t teach is simply how to cope in a society where the concept of a classical musician is alien.

There have been some comments coming into this blog from frustrated Malaysian musicians who feel society is against them.  Parents, they believe, do not see music as a serious profession, schools do not encourage students to promote their musical talents and Malaysian society, from the top to the bottom, has now become so arch-conservative that any hint of anything which is not religiously or culturally rooted in the soil of the country (a soil, one hastens to add, which the country’s leaders are only too happy to destroy in the name of commercial progress) is, by definition, alien and therefore wrong.  Few in the wider artistic community who look at Malaysia today can fail to recognise a certain intellectual regression which, as a recent TV documentary so vividly revealed, means that the only Malaysian artist who ever attracted any measure of international acclaim – namely P Ramlee – would stand no chance of emerging from today’s hidebound cultural mores.  But it’s not just Malaysian society which fails to recognise the value of a classically-trained musician, and a bit of proper training at college or university would certainly prepare young musicians to cope with the sort of things we meet in everyday life.

Here’s a typical situation; this one happened to me on a flight in southern Africa when, against my better judgement, I accepted the overtures from the person sitting next to me and thereby allowed a conversation to open up.  He was, he proudly told me, a diamond merchant and was making a fortune out of Africa; clearly a man for whom large amounts of cash, obtained at whatever price in other’s suffering, presented the total horizons of his existence. A man of shallow ethics, negligible morals and totally non-existent artistic sensitivities; in short, a typical businessman in today’s money-obsessed society.  Of course, the inevitable happened and I was asked what I did.  Now, I’ve been a musician for 50 years and I still dread the question.  Here’s how the conversation progressed.

“I’m a musician”.

“Hey that’s great!  What instrument do you play?”

“Er.  The piano” (I don’t, but say you play the organ to anyone and they think you are a sex fiend.)

“Hey that’s great!  You in any group I’ve heard of?”

“I don’t actually play in a group.  I’m a classical musician.”

“Hey that’s great!  Kinda like Beyonce?”

“No.  Not a bit.  More like Mozart and Beethoven.”

“Hey that’s weird!  I don’t know about that other guy, but I’ve heard of Mozart! You mean you actually dig that old-fashioned stuff?”

“No, I play it”

“Weird.  You’re joking aren’t you?”


“Do guys ever listen to that anymore?”


“So, what’s your favourite composer?”

“Excuse me, I’ve really got to use the toilet.”

It’s that last question that gets me every time.  If they don’t know who Beethoven is, what’s the point of taking this any further?  Yet it is asked of everyone who shows any inkling of an interest in classical music.  I was at an awards ceremony in Penang last week and overheard one of the audience asking a child who had won an award what her favourite composer was.  To the child’s eternal glory she replied, quick as a flash, Bartók, which clearly flummoxed the woman who was probably expecting Mozart since wasn’t he, too, a young kid who did well in music?  I remember when I was first asked the question.  I was four and a Great Aunt of noble birth peered at me distastefully through her pince-nez and asked me imperiously who was my favourite composer.  My answer was Purcell; based on the fact that my favourite pastime was putting my collection of matchbox cars on a 78 record with the legend “TRUMPET VOLUNTARY – PURCELL” on the blue label, and then watching as the needle arm swept them off.  (Clearly presaging my move in later life to Malaysia where musical performance takes very much a back seat to the apparently culturally acceptable pastime of carnage on the road.)

Ironically, of course, while Purcell was the only composer of whom I had heard at the age of four, the Trumpet Voluntary was by Jeremiah Clarke, but by the time I learnt this, I had discovered the Voluntary on the Old Hundredth and Dido and Aeneas – genuine Purcell – so I hadn’t actually lied to Great Aunt.  Jeremiah Clarke, interestingly, never featured on my list of favourite composers.  The next time the question came up, I had just started piano lessons (I was five), and my answer then was Grieg.  My teacher had taken me to a children’s concert in the Festival Hall and Moura Lympany had played (what else?) Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  I’d loved it, and had demanded to learn it at my next lesson (I was fobbed off with some other Grieg, but had enjoyed that too.)  Indeed, I liked Grieg right up to my university days when my lecturer advised me, in no uncertain terms, that “Grieg could not compose”.

Over the years my answers to the inevitable equation have included, incredibly, Vaughan Williams (at nine I had enjoyed the Wasps Overture – unaware that just about everything else was unmitigated crap), Rachmaninov, Percy Grainger, Wagner, Lutosławski (after my first and unforgettable encounter with the Paganini Variations – the only work during a performance of which I’ve actually fallen off my seat in sheer excitement) and Messiaen, and it was only after I’d left university and was out on my own as a musician that I summed up the courage to say that I didn’t have a favourite composer and that all of them – with the exceptions of Chopin and Liszt, my two bêtes noirs – were worth listening to. 

Only in the last decade or so, enriched with decades of experience in the field, have I found out at last how to respond to that dreaded question.  I always enthuse over Wolfgang Dasistein-Grossescheidt (1890-1964), a totally fictitious name (I hope) and so unexpected that the questioner either pretends to know about him, say “An interesting choice” and then change the subject so that their ignorance is not exposed, or asks you all about him, giving you the chance to spend the next hour indulging in a fantasy of fabrications and imaginary detail which prevents any likelihood of further conversation with your unenlightened questioner.

It took me half a lifetime to learn that skill; surely that’s the sort of thing they should be teaching students at music conservatoires.


A Bought Orchestra?

Blogs – and this one is no exception – are not for those in search of reliable facts, incontrovertible truths or balanced arguments. Responsible bloggers (and I hope I’m one) do try to check their facts, write responsibly and be as accurate as they can while expressing opinions which are entirely and singularly personal. But, without the filters of sub-editors, editors, legal advisers (a body of people to whom much of my copy seems to have been sent in the past) and, most especially, a critically-alert and educated readership which is part and parcel of writing for the print (and broadcast) media, a blog can never be quite so reliable. Decades of working as a journalist, writer and broadcast script-writer have made the double-checking of facts and careful balancing of arguments second nature, and although the freedom of the blog allows me to say things I would never commit to the discipline of print, I hope I keep a certain standard of decency and accuracy in what I write. I don’t expect it of all the others out there, but I do expect from certain quarters, so when I was directed to a blog from the Daily Telegraph I assumed I’d find truth, accuracy and decency, even if I also found a strong personal opinion.

(For the benefit of the vast majority in south east Asia who live in ignorance of such matters, I should here explain why the Daily Telegraph would lead me to expect high standards. Interviewed on television recently the actor Harrison Ford said of American breakfast television news that “you can always find a news programme telling you what you want to hear”. The British press is much the same. There are numerous different daily papers each offering up the same news but slanting their reporting and their comments in a myriad ways to cater for most levels of political acuity, cultural background, social standing and intelligence. There are broadsheets (offering expansive and detailed writing), tabloids (punchy and dealing primarily in headlines) and the ones in the middle (I forget what these are called, but titles like The Guardian take this form), there are those assuming a predilection amongst the readership for liberal thought, for firm adherence to the establishment ideas and for those who like to see naked and buxom flesh intertwined with headlines.  In short, British newspapers provide news in just about any coating you want.)

Amongst the UK press, the Daily Telegraph has long been my paper of choice. I don’t side totally with its politics, but I am more in tune with its opinions than any others, I relish the broadsheet layout and I adore its focus on literate and educated writing. I assumed those standards percolated through to its bloggers. So I was amazed to read in one Daily Telegraph blog something which, while neither inaccurate nor dishonest, struck me as at the very least disingenuous.

Writing about the Singapore Symphony’s recent tour of London, the blog (by Damian Thompson) included this amazing pair of sentences; “I suggest that the SSO under its Chinese-born maestro Lan Shui could become one of the great orchestras of the 21st century. To be fair, so could its regional rival, the Malaysian Philharmonic – but the latter was bought rather than grown, if you get my drift.” Yes, Mr Thompson, I get your drift, and it’s wildly, wildly off course.

We’ll come to the astonishing claim about the SSO in a moment, but what shocked me was that bit about the MPO being bought, and the obvious insinuation that, because of this, the orchestra’s musical worth is diminished. What bloody rot! What professional orchestra has not been bought? Do the musicians of the SSO pay their own way? Do the Berlin Phil, the Vienna Phil, the New York Phil, the LSO, the LPO, the BBCSO play for free? Of course they don’t. Every professional orchestra comprises players who have been bought, in the sense that someone has given money to pay their fees/salaries. It might be an airline, it might be a broadcaster, it might be a national government, it might be an imprisoned Canadian fraudster or weirdly reclusive twin-brothers (sorry to bring up old sores, Mr Thompson), or it might be an oil company. Sorry to disabuse the Daily Telegraph blogging community, but orchestral musicians don’t do it for love, they do it for money and very few of them really care where it comes from.

The insinuation is obviously that the MPO is somehow a fraudulent orchestra; its players don’t come from Malaysia and have only been enticed to Malaysia by vast sums of petro-dollars. But aren’t English football clubs the same? Are there any Mancunians in Manchester United, west-Londoners in Chelsea or cockneys in West Ham (I don’t think there are any English either, but I don’t follow football and care so little about it I can’t be bothered to check my facts), so why adopt a different standard when it comes to orchestras? If Manchester benefits by having a gum-chewing Scot and 12 foreigners earning vast sums of cash running about on its ground once or twice a week, surely you can’t begrudge the benefits that befall Kuala Lumpur from having a coffee-drinking German and 100 foreigners playing on its stage five or six times a week, each earning a fraction of what a single Manchester United player does.

There is also the suggestion that, while the SSO has “grown” to achieve the level of excellence Damian Thompson observed in it, the MPO was born great, which further devalues its current claim to greatness. Many who are born great have to work hard to live up to expectations, whilst those who achieve greatness have none of that kind of pressure on them. That the MPO has managed to stay a great orchestra even after some of the appalling things it’s been through (periods of bad management, unfortunate personnel choices, problems with Music Directors, not to mention political and community opposition) surely only legitimises the initial greatness which Kees Bakels created with a bit of help from Malaysia’s off-shore oil reserves.

Damien Thompson attended the SSO concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall last month and was clearly impressed. So, I am pleased to say, were most of the London critical fraternity. I was supposed to be there but, at the last minute, family issues kept me away. However, long conversations with colleagues in London who did attend attest to the fact that the SSO clearly raised its game.  Most I spoke to would never go so far as to suggest it was one of the world’s potential great orchestras, but clearly the SSO has it in it to do rather better than its Singapore norm. 

Once an orchestra can be great in the eyes of its domestic audience – as the MPO undoubtedly is concert after concert – it is well on its way to being a great orchestra in the eyes of the world.  But let’s not forget that greatness comes with a price, and to achieve greatness at home and abroad does mean your players, in effect, need to be bought.  And that’s a truth no blogger can deny.


The Future of Classical Music?

Three very different things that cropped up recently have caused me to ponder over the future of music. The first came from the Hong Kong Philharmonic who wanted notes to support a concert they were doing for students highlighting the different periods of musical history. I’ve been growing increasingly sceptical of the value of dividing music up into historical periods. True, it makes sense to find stylistic similarities between composers who lived roughly at the same time, but it can prove a damaging distraction. I’ve lost count of the students who, lumping Domenico Scarlatti, J S Bach and Purcell together as “Baroque” composers, think they are stylistically the same. In fact, Bach is probably closer to Brahms than he is to either Purcell or Scarlatti, but slavish adherence to the clear division of historical periods prevents them from recognising this.

That said, there are certain very loose connections which link music written at certain periods, and we can define those periods quite easily. Baroque, for example, began when Monteverdi started writing his operas around 1600 and finished when Bach died in 1750. Classical, too, ran its course until Weber started getting all Romantic in the early 1820s. But then we run into difficulties. Music theory books, still the common currency amongst those who follow the English musical education system, all seem to date from the 1930s when the Second Viennese School was all the rage, and so they conveniently end the Romantic era in 1900 and call everything that has come after “Twentieth Century”. That doesn’t hold water any more, and only those who never listen to music would still accept there is a definable period we can call “Twentieth Century”. Does anyone really feel there is any validity in linking Debussy, Elgar, Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss with Birtwistle, Boulez, Messiaen and Cage? For the HKPO, which was representing the “Modern era” with a Shostakovich symphony, I wrote of the First World War having shattered both society and music into thousands of fragments from which society has only recently recovered and music is still in the process of recovering. This makes it possible to define the Romantic era as ending and the Modern era as starting with the end of the First World War (1918); which is also, conveniently, the date of Debussy’s death – who I would argue was an unequivocally Romantic composer – and the end of Rachmaninov’s real career as a composer (what he wrote in America after 1918 is really only a nostalgia for a long-lost age). It also helps explain why music written since 1918 does not possess those common stylistic traits which so handily link the music of previous eras. 1918 appears a particularly specific date, but it does seem the most logical, and allows for the later works of the Second Viennese School as well as the music of both Messiaen and Shostakovich to sit amongst more appropriate company.

I fervently believe that it was the First World War which changed music possibly more dramatically than anything else in the history of the art (my old tutor, Arnold Whittall acknowledged this in his splendid book of Music Since the First World War), so it would be good if music text books might begin to shake off that horrific appellation “Twentieth-Century” and recognise that for the first 18 years of the century, we were still firmly entrenched in the Romantic era.

Not long after having dispatched the HKPO notes, I found myself in Penang chatting over tea to Raymond Tan. He writes songs and music aimed particularly at young children and learners, and he asked me about my views on tonality; was it dead? I have to say I reacted with a certain horror. The idea that tonality was dead was a mantra repeated monotonously (that’s a lovely piece of irony) by composition students whilst I was at university in the 1970s, it was a phrase much in vogue amongst “radicals” during the 50s and 60s, and is a statement that actually goes back to the very early years of the last century. I had thought that the idea had been firmly laid to rest when Boulez effectively discovered that music couldn’t exist without tonality, albeit not in the traditional sense, and that the new generation of composers since the Second World War – Adams, Reich, Glass, Pärt, Tavener, the lot of them – had actually rediscovered tonality and were busily reinvigorating music through it. But then my mind passed to the gruesome Contemporary Chamber Music concerts Kevin Field directed for the MPO some years ago and, more particularly, to his promotion of music by Malaysian composers.

The MPO Forum for Malaysian Composers has long been held up as a great contribution to Malaysian cultural life, but I have always fundamentally disagreed with its purpose. Malaysia is simply not ready to breed composers of value; experimenters, adventurers, yes, but composers with a real message to pass on to the music-loving public, no, not a bit of it. And the reason is clear. If we look at two very different countries, Australia and China, we see composers only now beginning to emerge. Forgetting for the moment Percy Grainger, very much a one-off in anybody’s books, it’s only been since the 1950s that serious composers have really emerged from Australia, yet classical music has been around there for the best part of a century, the first professional orchestra in Australia (the Melbourne Symphony) founded in 1906. In China, symphonic music has only existed since the 1930s and while the last decade has seen the appearance of Chinese-born composers on the world stage, the vast majority of those have been trained, and most still live, in the west. This tells us that it takes decades of musical activity in a country before genuine composing talent emerges. Yet Malaysia has been in existence only since 1963, and professional music has been a part of its culture only since 1998. There’s a long way to go before the country can hope to breed a worthwhile composer. The MPO would do better to devote its energies and resources into creating and nurturing new conducting talent; there’s none around at the moment which can fill the void left by the departure of Datuk Ooi Chean See.

But I digress. The Malaysian composers promoted so enthusiastically by the MPO all seem to seek their inspiration from the worn out and discredited systems of 50 years ago, and get very angry when audiences don’t seem to respond with the statutory; “Oooh. You are clever writing music which sounds so horrible it must be intellectually way above our level!” They revel in abandoning tonality – Boulez went there, did that, even bought the Tee shirt before giving it all up as a bad job – and in attempting to shock by use of what they regard as anti-traditional elements but which, by their very nature, are firmly inspired by the very traditions they purport to eschew. It worked when music was looking for somewhere to go after the Second Viennese School petered out, but has no relevance whatsoever today, now that music does seem to be heading in the direction of new tonality. Love them or loathe them (I’m firmly in the former group), the minimalists and their later manifestations have found a musical genre which is accessible to the casual listener but intellectually stimulating to those who delve deeper. It does what it should – immediately attract but continue to absorb after repeated listening – and for those idiots who utter the silly platitudes that “Mozart shocked in his day”; no he didn’t. He was writing music which was designed to attract his audience, while at the same time expand their horizons. That surely is the purpose of all new music, and we are only beginning to get back to that situation.

Then, just I felt that the future of music was beginning to shape itself up nicely, along came a third piece of the puzzle which has set me thinking all over again. International Record Review has sent me in my monthly batch of discs to review, one of John Scott Whiteley playing his own organ music. Now I have great admiration for John Scott Whiteley. He’s held a single job for years while I’ve been flitting around doing odds and ends, and he’s done wonders working steadily and solidly with the music at York Minster. He’s also a jolly fine organist and, for good measure, a very nice fellow (or, at least, he was when I last met him in the early 1980s when we were training as ABRSM examiners together, and I doubt whether he’s changed radically since then). But I’d never realised he was a composer. That’s something I didn’t know. But I know it now. In fact, I know so much about his thoughts, aspirations, background, intentions, influences and output, that I can almost regard myself as an authority. The only thing is, I’ve still not heard a note of it (and you’ll have to buy the magazine to see what I think of his music once I’ve got round to listening to the disc – follow the link to order your copy!). My immense knowledge of the complete works of JSW comes from the booklet which accompanies the disc. It has to be the most appalling piece of conceit, self-aggrandisement or verbal soul-baring – call it what you will – that I’ve ever read. There is more information here than you get with whole tomes of learned treatises on JSB. We know when and where he wrote each note, who was in his mind when he wrote it, what influenced him; the only thing we don’t know is what he had for breakfast each day he was composing, but I am pretty sure I know the answer. JSW seems to have lived off a diet of café au lait and croissant, with the occasional piece of fromage and baguette thrown in for good measure. When it comes to Francophilia, he’s up there way ahead of the pack. And the astonishing this is, when his tutors (Bryan Kelly and William Lloyd Webber) accused him of being too influenced by the French style, he bristled with indignation and suggest he would far rather be described as an “internationalist”. What’s his game? Page after page of this self-indulgent drivel draws attention to his unfettered admiration for French music, his determination to follow Pierre Cochereau (a man as French as they come) in his organ writing, and lists influences which are, almost without exception, French. What is about organists that makes them think there were only ever two periods of musical history – North German Baroque and French Romantic – and that if they are to write music, it must copy one or other of those, preferably the latter, because it promotes the dazzling virtuoso toccata which always pulls in the punters?

As I say, I have no idea what JSW’s music is like. But if his voluminous navel-gazing is anything to go by, he writes pastiche French stuff for organ and choir and is proud of it. I don’t see the future of music as being this, even if it does entertain and attract the listeners. Going over tired and tested methods from previous times can work (look at Brahms, look at Stravinsky, look, for goodness’ sake, at Flor Peeters – a dire composer, but at least one with a very distinctive voice) but it needs to be spiced up by adding something new and original. If torn between the desertion of tonality or the propagation of it through mere re-living former glory days, then I think I’ll give up music altogether and return to my old job as a bus driver. It will give me a lot more excitement.