Archive Page 2


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.


QUalifications? Who needs them?

Items about music in the Malaysian press always stir ambivalent feelings in my soul. My initial delight that music is considered important enough to warrant attention is soon tempered by my dismay at the singular inability all Malaysians seem to have when it comes to using English coherently in relation to music. There was a good example in today’s New Straits Times. In a well-balanced piece with the frightful headline “Have you got the X-factor?” one read; “Music listeners do not review your resume when they listen to your song. They don’t care that you received a Grade 8 in ABRSM.”

The sentiments are beyond reproach, but “Music Listeners”? What on earth are they? I accept that Malaysians are forced into being a nation of Music Hearers – you can’t go anywhere without the incessant background (and not so background) wail of the latest hits, often with lyrics which would set the most moderate of clerics beating a path to a Fatwa were they ever to stop and listen to them – but “Music Listeners” is a new one on me. At least we were spared the obligatory “rendition”, a word which has strong resonance with painters and decorators and members of the CIA, but means nothing at all to serious musicians. And, for once, “song” was used correctly (it’s a vocal piece; Malaysian writers regard it as a general term to describe music). I rather feel the writer meant “audiences”; which implies an altogether greater level of involvement in what one hears than does the passive “listener”.

But such reflection on semantics diverts attention away from the message, and once I’d negotiated the verbal obstacles, I was set thinking about the thrust of the essay. It’s an undeniable fact that students and teachers are so focused on amassing qualifications that they forget all about the basic skills of being a musician. Grade 8 (or any other grade for that matter) from the ABRSM, Trinity or anyone else (not least those cowboy operators who prey on gullible Asian teachers and parents with totally baseless – but cheaper – qualifications) is a pretty pointless qualification. It has no value beyond its function of demonstrating to students, teachers and parents that certain skills are being taught and learnt correctly. It certainly shows that solid and worthwhile work is being done, but it doesn’t confer on anyone the right to describe themselves as a musician. So, if putting “Grade 8 ABRSM” on your resume doesn’t impress an audience, what does?

Formal diplomas do have the benefit of being recognised by those within the profession (although I bet hardly anyone outside the music profession has the foggiest idea what the letters FTCL stand for, yet this is the ultimate musical diploma), but they impress only those who like to see a sterile collection of letters after a name. This brings to mind a colleague from my days in North Wales who collected diplomas simply to be able to put more letters after his name than anyone else. I suggested to him that, as a Scot, he ought to sit for the Associateship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He had never heard of it and became convinced that it was so exclusive it must be something special. He asked professors and learned academics about it, and it was only when one of them pointed out quite what those letters would be that he realised he had been the subject of a Rochester Spoof; he learnt the hard way that not all letters after a name look good in the eyes of the public. (I often wish that I could relate this story to all those hundreds of Hong Kong youths who waste so many precious years in the blind pursuit of a pointless diploma just to have letters after their names; they can easily end up looking like Associates of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.)

So, if qualifications don’t impress audiences, what does? Sit in any concert audience and you’ll see that most people avidly read the biographies of the soloist in the programme book (not so many, I regret to say, seem so intrigued by the learned notes about the music over which the great writers of our time have sweated blood). And what do these biographies – written, it has to be said, by the artists’ agents or even the artists themselves – tell us? They certainly don’t mention qualifications, and most don’t even mention their training (unless they were taught by a Famous Name). What the biographies do is list those other artists and venues with whom or at which the artist has performed. These can run on for page after page; I am often tempted to suggest it would be best to list any Famous Names/Places with whom and where the artist hasn’t played. Indeed, when these biographies became so long that they threatened to use up all the available space in the MPO programme books, we decided to take drastic action and edit them ourselves (much to the horror and anger of the artists and their agents). I even took to double-checking the facts – something agents never do – and found several which, shall we say, stated ambition over actual experience; one young violinist claimed to have performed alongside a conductor who had died before she was born. (I gather she had, as a child, played the violin while listening to records of the Great Maestro, so she wasn’t actually being untrue.) But when I started to cut these lists back, concert-goers with whom I spoke expressed regret, and I realised that it was these seemingly dreary lists which were what interested them most. What audiences like to read when encountering a new soloist is what experience they’ve had. For an audience, a musician who has played under the baton of Herbert von Karajan or at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, has valuable experience and is worth listening to, whereas an FTCL, LRAM, ARCM, LRSM, DipABRSM, LLCM, FLCM, ADCM, FRCO(CHM) points to overindulgence in the Alphabet Soup. If it comes to a straight fight between Klemperer/Albert Hall and BMus (hons), the dead German and the Victorian edifice win hands down every time.

Of course, there’s another factor we can’t ignore in this part of the world. Malaysian audiences – at least those at DFP – are immune from this, but in Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent Singapore, Ethnicity is what matters. If you’re Chinese (by looks rather than birth) you’re a sure-fire winner. Put Lang Lang or Sarah Chang up there and, grotesque performances aside (and both churn out more than their fair share of those to Asian audiences), the audience is driven into a frenzy of ecstasy; on their feet before a note has been played, cheering and climbing over each other for autographs. I’ve not noticed the same thing with European audiences and European musicians or, indeed, African/American Audiences and African/American musicians, but perhaps I’ve never been in the right place at the right time.

All that really matters is the performance itself. Audiences’ ears tell them what they like and what they don’t, and no amount of letters, grades or degrees will sway their opinion one way or another. Qualifications in music have their uses – don’t get me wrong – but they have no value in that ultimately essential arena where musicians have to promote their abilities to an audience. If you think a Music Listener is interested in your qualifications, you need a good kick up your Associateship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.


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.”

April 2021