Monday, 10 August 2009

Christina Coker... or Stephen Hough!

Although I don't normally put 'musical thoughts' on these pages, I felt I just had to comment on the recent BBC Prom performance which featured Stephen Hough with our excellent National Youth Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1.

We are used to having so-called 'experts' comment on the performances, and, as a reviewer myself, I am well aware that such things are very much subjective matters of personal opinion. On this occasion, one of the 'experts' was Christina Coker, the CEO of the National Foundation for Youth Music. Stephen is playing all of the Tchaikovsky works for piano and orchestra this Prom, and will also be recording them on CD. Whilst Ms Coker approved of much of Stephen's playing, her comment that, as far as she was concerned, he didn't 'put to bed some of those infamous challenges', left me feeling rather angry. As Stephen said later, a lot of the difficulties actually go unnoticed, because it's more the awkwardness of the writing - Tchaikovsky wasn't really a pianist - which makes the work so taxing. The showy passages in double octaves, whilst in no way easy, are relatively straightforward to bring off with real panache, unlike some of the extremely convoluted passages there, too.

I had a quick look at Ms Coker's background, and from it I doubt that she would probably be aware of these 'difficulties', so I found her comment vacuous, and patronising. Of course, a glance at the Youth Music website, and a further look at her past experience, and it doesn't surprise me that she would possibly make such a comment!

People (largely. I hope!) respect my musical opinions and judgements, even if they don't always agree with them, but they know that, at the end of the day, 'I've got the video and the tee-shirt'. In my dealings, Youth Music as such seemed to be two distinct entities: the elitist kind, with National Youth Orchestra, County Orchestras etc, which still depend on having trained and talented young musicians with a real gift, and the other kind where stringing together anything, banging hell out of a tin can, fiddling about with noises is classed as music-making, just so the participants can be fooled into thinking that being a musician is no different from being a bricklayer!

Now that GCSE and 'A' level Music is getter so much simpler, and even the good old ABRSM is making things easier (both doing this to keep their customers happy!) it fuels the flawed argument (and one which Ms Coker supports) that elitism is on its way out! Of course it is if you make things easier all the time. After all, whilst the population of Plymouth hasn't changed that much, when I went to one of the city's grammar schools, there were about 500 boys on the roll. Now it's double that or more, but a lot of the kids would never have made it there, without continually easing the admission requirements over the years.

Sorry I'm going off on a tangent, and I really just wanted to say that, for me, Stephen's performance was superb! Of course, I'm biased as I've reviewed Stephen twice playing here in Plymouth, and met him briefly - and one of my teachers at the Royal College of Music was Cyril Smith, who certainly did know a thing or two about piano-playing, unlike...........,

PS Just checked out Edward Seckerson's review in the Independent - seems like he approved of Stephen's performance, even commenting on the 'virtuoso' aspect, so I think Ms Coker has been well-and-truly shot down!

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