Out of tune

Highg

 

I have never been praised for having a good singing voice for a good reason. That is because  I do not have one.

I entered north London’s Highgate School, my secondary school, in 1965 having passed the fairly tough Common Entrance examinations. On the second day there, I took part in a football trial, and was advised not to play football at school. Soon after this, all of the new entrants to the school had to take a voice test. This involved standing in a long queue. One by one we reached a grand piano at which the senior music teacher, a Mr ‘Cherry’ Chapman, sat. As each boy arrived at the piano, Mr Chapman pressed one of the piano’s keys, and the boy made a sound. Depending on this sound, Mr Chapman was able to determine who had a voice good enough to be used in a choir and who did not. When it was my turn, I must have made a sound resembling that which you make for the doctor when he asks you to stick out your tongue and say “aaaaah”. My sound disqualified me from joining the choir.

One day a week, those in the choir spent an hour before lunch at choir practice. The rest of us were confined to classrooms where we were expected to read a book of our choice for one hour. This was no hardship in my case.

The pupils at Highgate School were divided into ‘houses’. Each house contained pupils from throughout the school. I was in Heathgate House, a ‘house’ for day boys rather than boarders. There were numerous inter-house competitions for various sports activities. Once a year, there was an inter-house singing competition. Each house had to produce its own choir, choose a song, practice it, and then sing it on the day of the contest. The first time that this competition occurred after I entered the school, Heathgate chose to sing (in French) the aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle from the opera Carmen by Bizet.

Apparently, my voice detracted from the quality of Heathgate’s choir, and I was asked to leave the other singers. This was possible because the rules of the competition did not insist on every member of a house being included in the choir. Without me, Heathgate managed to win the contest.

Whenever I hear the aria, which was sung in the competition, I remember that event back at Highgate School. Unlike Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which I had to study for a state examination and grew to hate, I still enjoy listening to performances of Carmen.

 

Picture source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

A vulgar audience

music

 

I enjoy attending events at the Nehru Centre, the Indian High Commission’s cultural centre in London. However, the audience can become quite unruly occasionally. 

Only afew days ago, I attended a concert of Bengali and Hindi songs pertformed by an excellent Bengali male vocalist, Soumyen Adhikari who accompanied himself on a harmonium. He was also accompanied by a superb tabla player. 

The audience was, as is often the case, restless. People arrived late throughout the performance. Others kept moving from one seat to another or leaving the auditorium only to return a few minutes later. All around us people in the audience were chatting to each other loudly whilst the musicians performed. They would not be silent even after having been asked repeatedly. All of these disturbances are quite normal amongst Indian audiences and are more or less tolerable.

What really upset me at this particular concert was the ignorant comments shouted by some members of the audience. After the singer had sung several beautiful songs in Bengali, some people began shouting things like “Sing something in Hindi”, “we can’t understand Bengali”, and “enough of Bengali songs”. 

I cannot understand either Hindi or Bengali, but that does not detract from my enjoyment of songs sung in these languages. What is important to me is that the singer has a good voice and that the musicians play well. Just the lovely sounds of the songs and the music is a great pleasure for me. It upset me that so many of those around me lacked the  ability to appreciate the beauty of what was being played. Their approach was so parochial that all they wanted was something familiar, which they had heard over and over many times before. I felt sorry for the singer, who is clearly a masterful performer whom I would happily hear again.

Conducted by an Albanian

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The Victorian gothic St Stephens Church in Gloucester Road has great acoustics for orchestral music. On the evening of the 15th of June 2019, we attended a wonderful concert of “Symphonic Dances” performed by the London City Philharmonic Orchestra. I have been to several other concerts where this ensemble has played. This time the orchestra had been enlarged so considerably that it only just fitted into the space available for them at the east end of the church. This magnificent collection of first-class musicians was masterfully and sensitively conducted by the Albanian conductor Olsi Qinami, who studied at the Academy of Arts in Tirana and then at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris.

The ambitious programme consisted of three symphonic dance pieces, all composed in the USA. Variations on a Shaker Theme by Aaron Copeland (1900-90), son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, got the concert off to a tuneful start. This was followed by a memorably good rendering of the vibrant Symphonic Dances by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), son of Ukranian Jewish parents. This exciting piece contains familiar tunes from Bernstein’s musical drama West Side Story. After an interval, there was a piece, Symphonic Dances, composed late in the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who emigrated to the USA from Russia in 1918.

The three pieces were all by composers, whose families had ‘roots’ in the former Russian Empire, but each of them was completely different. All three were highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami seemed to be able to get the best out of the orchestra seemingly effortlessly. He stood on his podium calmly without any dramatic gestures and achieved wonders with his large well-disciplined orchestra, which according to the programme notes contains players from all over the world including two with Albanian names (Pranvera Govori, violinist, and Idlir Shytu, cellist).

In summary, I am truly pleased that I did not miss this concert. It was pure joy throughout. Although Olsi’s previous concerts have all been outstanding, “Symphonic Dances” was his best so far. I look forward to the next, which will be in St Stephens Church on Saturday, 5th of October 2019.

Calm sea and Prosperous voyage

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A few years before my mother died, I persuaded my parents to invest in a stereo hi-fi system. My mother would only have such a system if it looked nice. So, they settled on a Bang and Olufsen system. Unfortunately, the aesthetically pleasing speakers sounded awful and we replaced them with something less pleasing to look at but which sounded good. When CD’s (compact discs) became available, I added a CD player to the system. By then, my mother was dead and the appearance of the player no longer mattered.

After my mother died, I was living in Kent. I used to visit my father on Sundays. We used to have lunch together in various restaurants in Hampstead village in north-west London. Always, after we had eaten, we used to viit the Waterstones bookshop and the Our Price music shop nearby.  Often, I would purchase a CD to add to my father’s small collection. On one occasion, I bought a CD with some orchestral music by Beethoven.

Some weeks later, I asked my father if he had enjoyed that CD. He said:

“There is something wrong with it. There is complete silence for the first few minutes.”

I said that I would look into this. When I reached his house, our family home, I turned on the hi-fi system and inserted the problematic CD. My father was right. For the first few minutes, there was nothing to be heard.  Then, I looked at the volume adjustment slider which was marked at equally spaced intervals from 0 to 10. I discovered that my father had been using the system with the volume slider set between 0 and 1. 

The first track on the CD was Beethoven’s Opus 12: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The first few minutes of this piece are very quiet, which is why setting the volume so low made it sound silent. My father’s penchant for barely audible low volume background music was the reason for doubting the integrity of the CD, which I had given him.

 

You can listen to the music mentioned above by clickingH E R E

Poetry

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I have never been able to enjoy reading poetry and enjoy it. However, if it is read out aloud by someone else, I usually love what I hear.  Poetry is like music made with words.

Here is a poem that I have enjoyed ever since I was a young teenager. It is Adlestrop by Edward Thomas (1878-1917). He was killed in France during WW1. His poem captures the essence of the world that reveals itself gradually when a train stops at a small country station.

 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Sounds new

Sound and science_240

 

Last week, I attended two concerts that showcased the works young composers studying at the Royal College of Music (‘RCM’) in Kensington, London. Most of the compositions were no longer than five minutes in duration. They were performed by musicians, vocalists and instrumentalists, also studying at the RCM.

I am not a musician, but I do enjoy classical music, both historical and contemporary. As a musically uneducated member of the audience, I was puzzled by many of the pieces that I heard. It struck me that many of the budding composers were aiming to make the performers produce extremely unusual sounds from their instruments or with their voices. It seemed to me that the compositions were written to make the performers produce the most unexpected sounds, many of them although interesting were not too pleasing to my ears and definitely atypical of the instrument making them. Tunefulness was of little or no importance in most of the pieces I heard. Many of the vocal pieces performed involved making various hissing sounds without using the vocalists’ vocal cords.  The object semmed to be to intrigue the audience rather than to please it.

Each piece, despite my misgivings, attracted generous applause. Either the audience was being kind as many in it were members of the RCM, or they really enjoyed what they heard. I could not decide which was the case.

At the end of the second concert, I wondered how the composers, whose works I had just heard, would ever be able to make a living if they continued composing such unmusical (to my ears) music as I had experienced. Well, I wish them luck.

A musical offering

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This evening, I attended a performance of A Musical Offering by JS Bach (opus BWV 1079) at the Royal College of Music in Kensington. Each of the sections of this work was introduced by the conductor, Joe Parks, who explained what was musically interesting about them.

The whole piece is based on a theme composed by King Frederick II of Prussia. He gave it to Bach on the 7th of May 1747, and challenged the composer to do something interesting with it. A Musical Offering is what Bach did with the King’s theme. I am no musician, so can hardly explain the compositional procedures with which Bach exploited the King’s somewhat dull theme. For example, in one of the sections improvisations on the theme are played with musicians simultaneously playing the modified theme both forwards and in reverse. In another section, the theme is improvised in a range of different keys. In brief, this piece by Bach is both intriguing and challenging for musicians. Although this aspect of the music is lost on me, my enjoyment of the work was not impaired.

What fascinates me is that a piece of music so full of compositional twists and turns is a delight to hear. Bach has not only satisfied his desires to hone his compositinal technique in this piece, but also he has created a work that is highly satisfying to the listener.

Great music like great paintings reach into the the inner subconscious of the listener or viewer and thereby evoke an almost visceral sensation of joy. It does not matter that the music is full of compositional magic or the painting might be impressionistic or abstract because the great artist knows how to produce a work that reaches those hidden parts of the body that evoke feelings we call emotion. Without doubt, A Musical Offering did that for me.

Music for Pleasure

 

My parents were not particularly musical. My late mother, a person who never gave up on anything she started, was forced to learn to play the piano when she was a child in South Africa. Through persistence rather than out of love of music, she passed many piano exams. When she became a mother, she decided that it was up to my sister and I to decide if we wanted to learn to play any musical instruments. My sister learnt to play several instruments, but, apart from one miserable  six week attempt at the piano, I did not.

At the school I attended between 1960 and ‘65 in London’s Swiss Cottage, we had music lessons once a week. They were conducted in the so-called ‘Billiards Room’ by Miss McDonald. We spent the lesson singing songs such as “The British Grenadier” while she accompanied us on the piano. Miss McDonald quickly worked out which of us in the class could sing well, and which could not. I was one of the vocally challenged group. Those who she considered to be poor singers had to sit on the floor. She referred to us as the ‘mice’. Potential choristers and others with tolerable singing voices sat high above us on upholstered chairs. Several times during each lesson, our teacher made the mice sing one verse of a song alone and unaccompanied. No doubt, we sounded feeble and unmelodious. The rest of the class, the future ‘Pavarottis and Bryn Terfels’, laughed at us.

When I arrived at my secondary school, Highate School (founded 1565), a boy’s school in 1965, all the new entrants had to take a voice test. The purpose of this was to determine which of us had a good enough voice for the school choir. Mr Chapman (nickname ‘Cherry’), the senior music teacher sat at a piano. The new boys lined up. One by one, each of us approached the piano. Cherry hit one key, and the boy had to sing the note. When I reached Cherry and his piano, I made a sound that must have resembled the ‘Aaaah’ that one makes when a doctor is examining your throat. With that short demonstration of my vocal skills, I was rejected from joining the choir. Once a week, there was a forty-five-minute period when the school choir met for rehearsals. The boys, who were not required for this, spent the period reading quietly.

In addition to music, Cherry also taught mathematics. Occasionally someone in the class, who had not heard what Cherry had just said, would shout: “pardon.” Cherry always replied; “granted” because he wanted to make the point that when someone could not hear him, he expected them to say something like: “Pardon me, sir, but what did you say?” To their faces, all teachers were addressed as ‘sir’.

The deputy music teacher was a Mr Wallace. During a year nearer the end of my five years at Highgate, we were given classes that were outside our chosen pre-university specialities. The idea was to broaden our general knowledge. One of these weekly classes was conducted by Mr Wallace. He used to set up a gramophone, and then play us classical music on LPs for forty-five minutes. He simply told us what we were about to hear and no more. Less of a disciplinarian than Cherry, he must have hoped and prayed that the class would not end up in mayhem, which it did often. Most of my fellow classmates were far more interested in The Rolling Stones than Rachmaninov.

One day, Mr Wallace played us one of the first two of the symphonies by the Finnish composer Sibelius. I was entranced by it. That weekend, I made my way to the branch of WH Smiths in Temple Fortune, our nearest shopping centre, and bought a recording of the symphony. It was issued by EMI on a low-cost series of recordings called ‘Music for Pleasure’. I played it often and bought other recordings of Sibelius’s music. I was hooked on classical music. Thanks to Mr Wallace, I began amassing a huge collection of classical music LPs, and then later CDs. Thanks to him, I enjoy attending classical concerts and meeting musicians.

I imagine that Mr Wallace must have passed away, and now enjoys music played by angels on their celestial harps. Sadly, I do not think that I ever told him how much I valued his musical appreciation classes.