…and how it relates to the performance of Western art music
by Dr Michael Low
I will never forget Tuesday 18th February 2020. In truth, there was nothing unremarkable about how the day itself unfolded: I woke up, went about my usual business of teaching, had lunch at my favourite coffee shop whilst browsing Premier League football news (yes, there was the small matter of Covid-19 that was making tidal waves in China and parts of Asia, but this has no interest to me. After all, “I live in Cape Town, and the damn thing probably needs a GPS or Google Maps to get here,” I reassured myself). The afternoon itself was equally uneventful: I did some grocery shopping in between teaching, practised for a few hours afterwards, then went home and ate the leftover dinner that my wife and I had cooked the previous day. It was after dinner that I received the phone call that changed my life forever, my beloved grandmother had passed away very suddenly, and in less than 48 hours I found myself in Changi Airport en route to Malaysia. I have visited Singapore many times in the last seven years, but I have never seen Changi airport so tranquil and serene, the exact opposite of its normal busy, bustling self. It was at this moment that I realised how potentially serious the Coronavirus was, and I prayed that it never finds its way to Cape Town.
Surely, but not slowly, the Coronavirus locked on to Google Maps and in under four weeks South Africa had her first infected case. Since then we have now been in lockdown for the best part of seven weeks and here I am writing to share my thoughts as the country ‘phases’ itself towards an economic recovery. However, before I proceed, I just want to be clear on the following points:
- In regard to Covid-19, there is the narrative norm on one hand and the so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ on the other, as well as everything in between. The point of writing this article is not to promote any ‘school’ of thinking but rather try to be as neutral as is humanly possible.
- The opinions (musical and otherwise) stated in this article are based on my experience as a human being, educator, musician and a pianist.
Here we go!
What I learn from the Coronavirus pandemic in relation to the performance of Western art music:
1. Be careful what you wish for…
Any die-hard fans of low budget, straight to video/DVD horror and slasher movies will no doubt be familiar with the above tagline as it was used use in Robert Kurtzman’s 1997 Wishmaster. In this film, an evil genie (known as the djinn) grants wishes to those who are willing to give up their souls. However, the wishes granted often contain a ‘catch’, or in other words, have an undesirable outcome for the wisher. For example (if my memory serves me correctly…), the djinn grants the wish of ‘eternal beauty’ to a female clerk by turning her into a mannequin! (Can you imagine wishing to play the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto only to be turned into a CD player?) For those who are not so familiar with Wishmaster, doubtless you will remember the climax of Disney’s Aladdin, when the protagonist mocks Jafar for not being as powerful as the genie, all the while knowing that once Jafar wishes himself into a powerful genie, he will have ultimately made himself a prisoner to the lamp.
In fairness to András Schiff, having part of your upcoming book quoted in a national newspaper is not a bad marketing ploy. The only drawback is that the editor will always choose the section from the book which is the most – hmm, how can I put it – musically provocative? The internet is full of ‘clickbaits’ and I suspect the purpose behind quoting the more aggravating passages from Schiff’s writing is to generate not only attention but also as reaction. That is not to say that Schiff is wrong, but does it really matter that ‘the average’ audience who attends Classical music concerts cannot hear the difference between a German 6th and a Dominant 7th Chord? All of us start our musical journey somewhere: I was a self-confessed Richard Clayderman fan in my early childhood who dreamt of playing Francis Albert Lai’s ‘Love Story’ on my wedding day (Thank God I didn’t!), but as a result of attending live concerts, I developed a lifelong passion for Classical music and made it a big part of my life. I must also confess that I am no angel and have on a couple of occasions fallen asleep during live performances. It is my humble opinion that having an audience who is just (if not more) musically knowledgeable than the performer is akin to a patient who ends up diagnosing himself/herself in a medical consultation with a doctor. I have not read Schiff’s book, and there is every chance he is being quoted out of context. However, saying that modern audiences don’t know the difference between poor and outstanding performances is kind of like biting the hand that feeds you. And even if this is the case, what does it say about Schiff’s own standing as one of the most revered pianists of the twentieth century? (I must also confess that Schiff was one of my musical idols during my teenage years). On Schiff’s remark with regards to the ‘dos and don’ts’ of concert etiquette, I don’t think, even in his most surreal musical fantasies, that he envisages an age where the internet and social media would be the only platform available for live performance. If Schiff ever does a live stream, at least he won’t be giving death stares to certain audience members when they do cough or shuffle, and audience members will now be able to press pause for a bathroom break, especially when the encore is Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy.
In fairness to Schiff, he has since apologised for what he had said. However, there is no denying that the pianist’s initial remark will continue to leave a lingering taste on the tongues of many Classical music critics and bloggers.
2. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all…
When the Chinese government took the decision to lock down Wuhan in January 2020, no one else in the world envisaged that this would be the beginning of a new world order. Indeed, the rest of Asia swiftly implemented the Chinese lockdown model, followed by most of Europe (apart from Sweden) and it was only a matter of time before countries on the African continent did the same. However, whereas the lockdown was dutifully observed in China and Germany, the entire practice has less of a desirable effect in countries such as the Britain and South Africa. This is not because the Chinese and the Germans are necessarily better than the British or the Africans, but because the collective mindset of citizens in every country is different. Sweeping statement perhaps, but China and Germany are known to be nations of extraordinary discipline (I say this with a small pinch of salt because there will always be exceptions to any argument: even in the most disciplined nations there will also be a handful of free-spirited beings. Conversely, in nations where freedom of expression and an easy-going way of life are encouraged, there will always be a handful of very disciplined people). In musical performance, the Chinese (and Orientals in general) are known for their peerless technique and poise, often the fruit of countless hours of practice. (I have been told that, in China, a piano student must ‘earn’ his/hers right to any musical repertoire by first completing at least all the Hanon Exercises as well as the first two books of Czerny’s School of Velocity!). Such precision of technical execution, combined with extraordinary agility, is what gives the Chinese pianist the ‘WOW’ factor: think of Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, although a case can be made for Miss Wang that it is not only her playing that has the ‘WOW’ factor. Like their Chinese counterparts, the Germans are a nation of law-abiding citizens who enjoy a sense of order to their everyday live. (It is possible to argue that the Chinese’s respect for the authority comes from a place of fear, whereas the Germans actually seem to enjoy following rules). I will never forget listening to a discussion between two former housemates of mine, one German, the other Italian: the former could not understand why the latter is so keen on evading tax whereas the latter cannot understand why the former is keen on paying tax! Hence, a ‘Germanic’ musical performance can often translate into emphasis of the downbeat, as well as the awareness of the music’s symmetrical phrase length, thus giving the listener a sense of structure, of knowing where exactly you are in the music. In other words, German pianists have the tendency to play more ‘down the bar line’, and I name Wilhelm Backhaus and Artur Schnabel as two exponents of this school. I have always felt that one of the challenges of playing any musical repertoire at the highest level, be it German or otherwise, is to ‘unsquare’ the so-called ‘square’ phrases, but once again, I must remind you that I am merely making a generalisation about German performers and German music. There will always be exceptions to the rule; Walter Gieseking and Wilhelm Kempff spring to mind.
I cannot speak for Britain, but the reason lockdown doesn’t have the effect it was supposed to have in South Africa has much to do with the country’s unstable infrastructures and volatile economy (South Africa’s state-owned enterprises have been surviving on state bailouts for years and the country has recently taken the decision to liquidated its national airline, the SAA, after years of mismanagement). As a result, South Africans have become very self-sufficient whilst making the most of their entrepreneurial abilities. When the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that the sale of tobacco and alcohol would be prohibited during the national lockdown from the end of March, many South Africans decided that this was unconstitutional and ‘made another plan’ (the South African phrase for ‘Plan B’). The resulted in many smokers getting their supply of cigarettes from ‘unofficial’ sources as well as a spike (actually more akin to a wedge) in pineapple and yeast sales, as people brewed their own version of homemade pineapple beer. At the same time, there was also a gentleman across social media who subsidised his own income by delivering wine using an arial drone! When there was a clamp-down on these ‘illicit’ activities, some resorted to looting and burgling liquor stores, on a couple of occasions with the help of selected members of the South African Police force, who were meant to be enforcing the lockdown in the first place!
Any instrumental teacher worth their pedagogical salt will tell you just how important it is to address the basics such as rhythm, the reading of musical notation, posture and technique. At the same time, no two students are the same, and I have always felt that one of the hallmarks of a great teacher is the ability to successfully convey the same information to different individuals to achieve the desired result. Despite their differing styles of pianism and musical interpretation, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moisewitsch, and Artur Schnabel all studied with Theodor Leschetizky. And even though Emil Gilels, Radu Lupu and Sviatoslav Richter were the student of Heinrich Neuhaus, all three of them could not have been more different in terms of their musical temperament. However, all these great pianists have one thing in common (that is if we discount their massive technique and repertoire, which is taken for granted at the highest level), they are first and foremost, musicians of the highest order (I say this with a slight reservation, because some of Richter’s late performances can be slightly off the mark, to say the least). In short: Gilels, Lupu and Richter all put the composer before themselves. I have always got the impression while listening to Gilels and Lupu’s performances (of Beethoven and Brahms in particular) that this is what the composer themselves wanted to say, only now they are saying it through the performer, who acts as a kind of conduit. As we entered an age of remote teaching, one only has to look at the YouTube channel of Graham Fitch and Josh Wright, two outstanding pedagogues who often remind the viewers that there is no one way of playing the piano. Sweeping statement perhaps, but it is possible to say that the techniques introduced in both Fitch and Wright’s video tutorials have one primary function: the economy of physical movement through the release of tension, which make for more efficient interpretation of the musical score.
3. The narrative norm is not for everyone…
In general, there seems to be three school of thoughts on Covid-19. The mainstream narrative belongs to the billionaire philanthropists, politicians, national media and medical professionals on the front line fighting this ‘invisible enemy’. They will tell you how dangerous and easily transmittable the virus is and show you the ‘facts’: hospitals all over the world are over-crowded with Covid-19 patients, the virus completely annihilates the human respiratory system, and until a vaccine is found, we will have to keep our ‘social distance’. Finally, they will justify the world-wide lockdown by saying that human lives are much more important than the country’s economy. The second narrative seeks to challenge the first, these are put forward by investigative journalists, independent news broadcasters, regular doctors and medical professionals (who changed their practice from conventional medicine towards natural and alternative healing modalities commonly known as functional medicine). They will argue that Covid-19 is not as deadly as the media make it out to be. They will also argue that there is a difference between dying of Covid-19 and dying with Covid-19. They will point to a flaw in Professor Neil Ferguson’s model (which sparked the lockdown in the UK and the US) and question the merit of social distancing (especially when Ferguson himself was guilty of the violating the curfew during lockdown). Finally, they will argue against the world-wide lockdown as it is not only catastrophic to the country’s economy but also leads to long-term psychological and emotional impact on people. For those without a regular pay cheque (like the majority of South Africans), it is a matter of rolling the dice and going back to work or die of hunger, and many chose the former. Those who are in favour of the third and final narrative are often dubbed conspiracy theorists. Based on the argument put forward by the investigative journalists and independent news broadcasters, they believe that Covid-19 is manufactured in a science lab and that the current pandemic is in fact a ‘plandemic’ masterminded by the billionaire philanthropists and the World Health Organisation in their quest to depopulate and conquer the earth.
Regardless of what your views on Covid-19 are, one will always be able to find the sources to support one’s arguments. However, what I found disappointing is how dismissive certain individuals have become. Arguments from those who embraced the dominant narrative include ‘I would be wary of anyone who doesn’t think Covid-19 is serious’, or ‘You obviously have not seen what I have seen’ (an unassailable medical argument), and ‘It is against the law to promote fake news about the epidemic, you should only get your information from trusted sources such as the national media’. Whereas the ‘conspiracy theorists’ will respond with answers such as, ‘There are far too many coincidences for this to be a pandemic’ (often quoting Event 201 and the Rockefeller ‘Lockstep’ document), and ‘The medical institutes and national media covering the Covid-19 pandemic have links with the philanthropist foundations.’ I will probably get a lot of flak for this but isn’t the human thing to do during these extremely traumatic times simply to listen to others no matter how ridiculous their thoughts are? All of us have our own demons to conquer, and what we are feeling right now is intrinsically linked with our own anxiety and past experiences, hence this is all deeply personal. I have colleagues who are terrified of going back to work when school resumes, and at the same time, I also know people who are not afraid of the virus. But I am not going to reprimand these individuals when they are two centimetres outside their social distancing perimeter when I am waiting in line to do my grocery shopping. At the same, I can only be supportive and continue to convey the message of hope and safety to everyone else during these uncertain times.
I have always found it interesting that what constitutes expertise as well as the clarity of thought is often directly linked with the reputation of an institute and its country of origin. For example, a medical doctor working for a first-world medical establishment will always be considered as better qualified than a doctor living in a third-world country with his/her own private practice. Western art music, due to its heritage and traditions, is full of what can be described as ‘gatekeepers’: musicians, teachers and critics (though not necessarily in that order) who are convinced that theirs is the definitive way of playing the piano and musical interpretation. I often get the impression that part of this has to do with privilege as well as pride: ‘I studied with A, who was the student of AB, who studied with ABC, who is the neighbour of ABCD, who was responsible for feeding the stray cat who wanders around Beethoven’s apartment, which in turn makes me a direct link to Ludwig himself!’ (Jokes aside, one often feels obliged to convey a worthwhile message learnt from one’s teacher to the next generation). Doubtless many of us will remember Wanda Landowska’s closing remarks to a talented young pianist, ‘Very well, my dear, you play Bach your way, I’ll play Bach his way!’. Without intending any form of disrespect towards Madame Landowska, I doubt even she had ‘the hotline to Bach’, as legendary South African piano teacher Laura Searle used to put it.
I came across an interview not so long ago by an eminent pianist of the twentieth century (another one of my musical idols) talking about the differences between Classical and Romantic music. The pianist went on to say the following:
There are certain devices that one uses in Romantic music that are appropriate only for Romantic or subsequent music. If you take those devices and apply them to earlier music, then it’s totally inappropriate, and it makes the Classical music sound silly. However, if you were to use what you might call ‘Classical devices’ on Romantic music, historically, that would be correct!
In my humble opinion the difference between the interpretation of Classical and Romantic music has much less to do with the ‘devices’ (in using such a term I suspect the pianist was talking about rhythmic organisation). I strongly feel that the difference between how we approach Classical and Romantic Music lies in our sense of musical objectivity. This is because the musical ideals of the Classical style were intrinsically linked with the Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on logic and the rational. In Classical music this is translated into balance and structure, as well as the beauty and clarity of melodic line. Being a virtuoso during Mozart’s lifetime had little to do with thundering double octaves and brute fffs, but rather with beautifully shaped semiquavers passages. The Romantic movement is a reaction against the hegemony of reason central to the Enlightenment. In art and music, Romanticism shifts the emphasis from structural objectives to the realm of emotional subjectivity, at the same time placing the individual as a focal point in the creation of an artwork. In short, the performer now has more musical licence for rubato, as well as for injecting his/her personality into the performance. I recall one of my teachers telling me that rubato in Mozart is on ‘a knife edge’, you are either right or you are wrong, whereas rubato in Liszt is more of a ‘grey’ area. While I wholeheartedly agree that nothing is more hideous than Mozart being played in the Romantic style: lots of Sturm und Drang, long pedals across bars, variation in tempi as well as the ‘splitting of the hands’ – a quintessential Romantic gesture found in the performance of Chopin, Schumann and the late Romantics. I also cannot imagine Liszt and Rachmaninoff performed ‘classically’: with little, if any, tempo fluctuation and understatement of all the dynamics, topped off with a hygienically precise execution. Music is a living, breathing entity, it is also a reflection of humanity, flawed, unique and unapologetically beautiful. I am not saying for one second that we should disrespect the stylistic parameters of musical performance that have been passed down for generations, but I find many of the mainstream musical narrative somewhat troubling because there will always be exceptions to the rules, just like there are exceptions when it comes to individual performances. While I am far from convinced with the musical interpretations of pianists such as Glenn Gould and Ivo Pogorelich (it must be said that some of the rationale behind some of Gould’s more eccentric recordings – such as the Mozart Sonata in A Major K331, has more to do with the pianist’s own sense of anxiety more than anything else), I also think it is unfair to dismiss them as charlatans or musical quacks. I may not be Pogorelich’s biggest fan with regards to the pianist’s comeback performances, but at the same time I pay him the compliment of treating him as a human being and a musician; the very least I can do is to listen. And even though I might not like what I hear, Pogorelich is still entitled to his musical opinions. By the same token, I don’t think Pogorelich himself will approve of many of my own performances! However, one sometimes comes across a musical interpretation that has absolutely no regards for the musical text or what the composer wants, and that is when I get immensely annoyed. I recently came across a YouTube performance of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy at [at least] a quarter of Schubert’s tempo marking. My initial reaction was that this must be a joke; sadly it wasn’t, and if it was, I have obviously missed the punchline. I will never forget my composition teacher telling me the following when I was a wide-eyed teenager: “Michael, if you want to be loved, don’t become a musician.” He is right of course, musical interpretation is full of subjectivity and no matter how competent you are, there will always be someone somewhere in the universe who will find fault with what you do. At the end of the day, I truly believe that if you are a trained musician, and you approach the music that you play with humility, intelligence and heart, then you will be able to do it justice. Whether or not your interpretation is ‘in line’ with the mainstream musical narrative, does it really matter if the gatekeepers don’t like what you have to say?
I want to finish this article by referencing a movie my wife and I enjoyed during the lockdown, Jojo Rabbit. Directed by Taika Waititi’s and based on Christine Leunens’s 2008 book Caging Skies, the film is set towards the end of World War II and centres around the everyday lives and the imaginary world of Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, an innocent but heavily indoctrinated ten-year-old German boy who dreams of becoming a Nazi and fighting for the Third Reich (Jojo’s make-believe world is symbolised by his interactions with an extremely supportive and immensely entertaining ‘Adolf Hitler’, played by the director himself). Jojo’s world starts to fall apart when he discovers that a Jewish girl, Elsa Korr, has been secretly living within the walls of his house and it doesn’t take the two protagonists long to strike up a friendship. As Jojo develops feelings for Elsa, he begins to question his own beliefs before realising that ultimately, it is love and ‘butterflies in the stomach’ that prevail, especially during traumatic and uncertain times. As the world slowly emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, I would like to think that this momentary pause in time gave all of us a chance to reassess our lives and how we go about doing certain things. The world may not be a perfect, yet it is the only one that we have. Life can often be a struggle, but all of us who are here on earth have been given a wonderful opportunity to make something of it: live it, embrace it, love it, and if you can, play some music on the way, and perhaps take a leaf from Jojo and Elsa’s book – dance to it.
Dr Michael Low, May 2020
As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke.
An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of South Africa greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.
In 2013, Michael started a project in Singapore collaborating with The Kawai School Elite in a series of masterclasses and workshops for teachers and students. Having grown up in the East and lived his life in the West, Michael believes that both cultures has much to offer and envisage an exchange between Singapore and Cape Town in the future. In 2019 Michael was also invited to Taipei for a series of Masterclasses and workshops.
Michael is also the co-founder of the Elvira Ensemble – a Classical Chamber Orchestra specialising in the Piano Concertos of Mozart and Beethoven as well as Soundtracks from Blockbuster Hollywood Movies. The Ensemble have given performances at several high-profile events such as the wedding of Justin Snaith, one of South Africa’s leading race-horse trainer. In January 2020, the ensemble was engaged to perform at the wedding of the former Miss Universe and Miss South Africa, Miss Demi-Leigh Nel Peters.
Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.
Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.