Friday, August 26, 2016

Not much in praise of exams

There's been a little flurry of attention towards music exams following an article by the excellent Rosie Millard about the pride and joy that success in them has brought to her kids - and countless others all around the world (the article is entitled somewhat misleadingly, 'Why I'm proud to be a pushy music parent').

A badge makes a nice post-exam present. (pic: zazzle.co.uk)
There's a huge sense of satisfaction, she explains. She took Grade V piano herself, learned the necessary pieces for two years, had a "horrendous experience" on the day and passed. The system is "a gold standard which everyone understands" and a "useful byword to sling around CVs..." It shows you have guts, courage, patience, application. And you feel proud of yourself. Great. What's not to like?

The day that article came out, we went to a pianist friend's place to hear her perform Bach for a small audience including two elderly Holocaust survivors. Our friend is one of London's more magical musicians and she played us a selection of JSB's less often-programmed music - Two-Part Inventions, Three-Part Sinfonias, some Capriccios (the one graphically depicting the departure of a beloved brother is a delight!) and more. But in two instances - the D minor Invention and the B minor Sinfonia - within two notes I felt a chill descend on my shoulders. Images assaulted me: Oh My God, That One.

I did the D minor Invention for goodness knows which exam, when I was I forget how young. The B minor Sinfonia was a set piece for Grade VII when I was 14. And the struggles came straight back. I worked on that bit for weeks and months. It was terrifying. I didn't know what the flippin'heck to do with the music and I didn't like it very much. You need fast fingers that aren't sweating and shaking, a light touch, preferably not too much pedal. You need to understand Bach's dance rhythms, his own instrument, his glittery, humorous flair. I don't think I'd ever heard of any of them at that age.

Glenn Gould plays the B minor Sinfonia. What a mean thing to set for Grade VII!



Exams? I was terrified. I didn't know what the piano was going to do to me (the keys are usually sticky and sweaty from all the other terrified students' fingers before you). You're shoved through the process as fast as humanly possible, because there's a time limit and a lot of kids waiting their turn outside in the waiting room, pasty-faced and nauseous.

None of that has the first thing to do with making music, enjoying music, understanding it, taking in the spirit-food with which it provides us. It's all about building up the CV, same as any exam. And 35 years later, that music is still laden with the ghastly associations of that miserable day: warming up from the chilly corridors by soaking your hands in a basin of hot water in the ladies' loos, simply counting the minutes until the whole thing will be over and you get given a nice treat of tea and cake as your reward (or I did - I was lucky).

Our friend plays Bach as if it's music to which angels dance. Among the guests were a sparky and elegant woman in her eighties, born in Hungary, who survived Bergen-Belsen, and a retired doctor of similar vintage who was deported from Amsterdam, where he'd lived a few blocks away from Anne Frank, at the age of five. He plays a little and has a clavichord at home. He and I followed the score of the Inventions together until he decided to stop and listen only, since there were tears in his eyes.

Of course, there's room for music to do both these things: to bring CV enhancement and "life skills" and to offer spiritual sustenance and oneness with the universe. That's one of the amazing things about music: it's like a tree, which can pump out oxygen that we breathe, grow fruit that we eat, burn to help us keep warm, make furniture that we can sit on, make a violin that we can play, build a house or a ship, be carved to make a beautiful work of art.

Not enough of us, though, have the chance to realise that there is more to music than horrible experiences in exams. They should never be the be-all and end-all, but it worries me that perhaps, to many modern families, they become so, and they could actually put the kids off music. After all, if your first experiences of performing are in an exam situation, those associations might stay with you and they can be awfully difficult to shake off. You're ingrained to feel you are being judged from the start, not sharing music with other human beings.

Another downside is that they hold people back. You become psychologically tied to your level. "Oh, I can't play that - it's Grade VIII and I'm only Grade V." I remember being stuck with Grade VI for two years because for some reason my entry forms didn't arrive when they were meant to, so it had to be put back, but the syllabus changed, I had to learn the new set pieces and so forth. And you needed Grade VI for A level, I think, so I had to do it. When I could have just said "what the heck", and moved on to something more challenging, and maybe progressed faster.

Like various other great Victorian inventions (the first syllabus was developed in 1890) this system was possibly designed via a mindset that liked to keep people neatly in their place, like kitchen utensils. I once interviewed a quartet leader who'd been teaching the Sistema kids in Venezuela; we'd all been marvelling at the joy and enthusiasm of the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra. What do those kids have that we don't, I asked. "They don't do graded music exams," my violinist growled. "Nobody tells them they can't do this or that piece because they're only Grade IV."

The Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra in 2007. I know it's fashionable to denigrate El Sistema these days, because of the appalling conditions of life in Venezuela, but I don't think they'd have been playing like this at the Proms if they'd been stuck shivering in a corridor waiting to do their Grade V.


I don't know many professional musicians who went through the grade exams. If they're going to make a career, they'll probably have exceeded Grade VIII by the age of 12 in any case.

So do the exams, by all means, but don't forget about making music. If your kids are tackling these exams, invent ways for them to practise performing for fun, with other kids, with ice cream and balloons, with a celebratory atmosphere. Take them to fun and social musical events - kids' operas, youth orchestra concerts, holiday courses. Let music-making be a natural and integral part of life, about giving, about sharing an enthusiasm, something to look forward to, something to love. If the exam associations - being judged, being frightened, longing for it to be over - can stay with you for decades, so can the joy of that other way forward.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A dark horse of music steps into the light

Want to hear something completely different? Pop along to The Warehouse, Waterloo, tonight, where Fifth Quadrant and violinist Simon Hewitt Jones are presenting the work of Michael Rosenzweig, a multi-talented South African-born composer who moved to Britain several decades ago full of promise, yet whose work has gone all but unheard until now. Fifth Quadrant tonight performs his String Octet, Elegy for 13 Solo Strings and Fugue '97 alongside music by Dvorák and Barber.

Here's a sneak preview: an extract from Fifth Quadrant's first read-through of the Elegy. The composer conducts.



Simon Hewitt Jones writes:

At the age of 65, Michael Rosenzweig remains the dark horse of British classical music, a position he has held since his arrival on these shores in l979 touting a Symphonic Tone Poem, a string quartet, a piano trio and several other works that paid homage to Mahler, Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky.

At the time, Rosenzweig had no formal music education at all; he’d simply listened to the masters, taught himself to write music and somehow produced work of such promise that two major universities offered to admit him straight into their Masters and Doctoral programs – on full scholarships. Further honours soon materialised, including the DAAD Artists Fellowship in Berlin and ringing endorsements from such luminaries as Chou Wen-chung, Lukas Foss, Jack Beeson and Emanuel Hurwitz.

Rosenzweig appeared to be on the brink of greatness, but he ‘dropped out of sight’ circa 1995 and has spent the last three decades starving in London garrets while making the odd appearance as guest conductor of Bulgaria’s Vidin State Philharmonic. His appearance at The Warehouse with Simon Hewitt Jones' Fifth Quadrant offers Londoners a rare chance to see this enigmatic figure and hear some of his unheard music.

Endorsements are impressive, too. These are just two of them:

CHARLES MACKERRAS, international conductor: “I must say I find your compositions wholly admirable. You are obviously a man of huge talent.”

OLIVER KNUSSEN, composer, conductor, Conductor Laureate London Sinfonietta: “A talent of a major order…one of the most substantial composers of his generation at work anywhere today.”

7.30pm 25 August, The Warehouse, 13 Theed Street, Waterloo, London SE1 8ST. Further info and online booking: http://www.michaelrosenzweig.com

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How to be yourself in music

The other day a fascinating CD landed on my desk. It's music by a composer who is also a well-known conductor - indeed, he'd probably say, most modestly, that he's a conductor who composes on the side. He's the splendid Iván Fischer, a maestro whose work I've known and loved for years, and whom I've interviewed a few times, but whose original music I knew not at all. I'm reviewing the disc for BBC Music Magazine, so the detail must wait for that; but how intriguing it was to find I was listening to that same voice I knew from his performances and interviews, translated into new-created music.

Fischer. Photo: Marco Borggreve
Whether it's a touching solo song in Yiddish (amazingly sung by Fischer's daughter, the contemporary-specialist soprano Nora Fischer), a short Sextet for strings and tabla subtitled 'Wanderlust', the anguished German-Yiddish Cantata or the short opera Tsuchigumo, a completely off-the-wall creation in six languages and plenty of pastiche, based on a 15th-century Noh play - that voice is Essence of Fischer. It's spare, direct, condensed. It's funny, agonising, personal, satirical, sometimes switching between these in a flash, sometimes all at one go. It's malleable, adaptable, insightful. A spot of Italian baroque style and language rubs shoulders with circus-like effects full of Hungarian black humour. And the opening fanfare is all fun - catchy and melodic and showy. Behind such chameleon-like eclecticism, though, lies a consistent personality: that voice, at one with the performer and the man.

I've noticed this occasionally with performers, too. I remember coming home from interviewing Mitsuko Uchida once and switching on the radio to hear her playing a Mozart piano concerto. There, bowling out of the airwaves, was the same voice that had just been talking to me - except now on the piano. The means of expression - the breathing, the phrasing, the dynamics, the eloquence - was just the same. When everything connects to the innermost self, when, if you like, the channels are open and there's a faultless technique without psychological blocks to hold it up, a musician can perform as the person she or he is, a composer writes the music that expresses the essence of his or her soul, and the more intelligent, enquiring and insightful the person, the more there will be to communicate.

Perhaps this is what lies behind that personal sound that all string players seek - in reality, it's probably there already and it's up to them to develop and refine it; and likewise, the distinctive sound of every great pianist (people who don't play the piano sometimes think this is impossible, but it isn't). You can even find it in an orchestra, when it's really at one with the music and the conductor; recently, at the Bavarian State Opera's Meistersinger, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, it seemed that unified, vivid personality with passion, meaning and a heap of attitude shone through every note of the overture

So what's it down to? Technique? Without the finest technique to put it across, that essence-of-personality won't come through; the technique is the means to the end. But there's no point having the technique if there is no personality behind it, nothing to say about the music, nothing to communicate. As Martha Argerich once said, the sound must be in your head before you can create it: it begins with the imagination.

You can hear Fischer conduct the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Proms on 26 August - they are doing the Mozart Requiem, with the Collegium Vocale Gent.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of examples to illustrate these pieces of quasi-profundity for a Tuesday morning.

Ivá Fischer's Eine Deutsch-Yiddische Kantate


Mitsuko plays Bach

Monday, August 22, 2016

John Adams writes a Gold Rush opera


News from John Adams's website tells us that this much-loved American composer has been hard at work on his biggest creation since The Gospel According to the Other Mary. His new opera is called Girls of the Golden West - yes, really - and is to be premiered in San Francisco in, he says, November 2017. 

The libretto is by Peter Sellars and, like the pair's two previous works together - the Other Mary and Dr Atomic - is compiled out of original texts from a variety of sources, this time including chunks of Mark Twain's eyewitness accounts, newspaper articles, letters, Gold Rush songs, political speeches, journals and a spot of Shakespeare. Set in the 1850s in mining camps in the Sierra mountains during the California Gold Rush, the story is a searing indictment of racism in American society of the time. It's violent, disturbing, tragic. But I can't help adoring the name of one central character, a Chinese prostitute called Ah Sing. 

Here's the full synopsis. Take a deep breath: it's strong stuff.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Rubinstein plays the Chopin A flat Polonaise

Why? Because you never need an excuse to listen to something as inspirational as Rubinstein playing Chopin. This performance was filmed for NBC in 1956. Enjoy.