Sunday, 17 August 2008

Bruce Almighty / Conversations with Bryce Morrison Part I

Almost exactly one year to the day, I attended the famed Chetham's Piano Summer School in Manchester, UK. The prime reasons were to attend Bryce Morrison's Music Criticism Course, have some piano lessons and attend recitals given by the school's illustrious faculty.
My account of the weeklong stay, including reviews and a diary, will appear in these pages for the first time. Here's the first article "Bruce Almighty", a mini-portrait of arguably classical music's Numero Uno piano critic, Bryce Morrison.

Some 22 years ago, I chanced upon a CD recording of Cuban-American pianist Jorge Bolet’s encores (on Decca), which included original works by Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy, Moszkowski and de Schloezer, and Godowsky transcriptions. Inside the booklet were wonderfully written sleeve-notes and an interview with Bolet by a certain Bryce Morrison. The manner of writing was one of utmost lucidity, wit, erudition without snobbery, colour without the bombast, from one clearly in love with the English language, and, of course, the music. The immediate impulse was that of wanting to hear the music stat, and to luxuriate in all its finery. “What a fortunate fellow, this Bryce Morrison,” I thought to myself, “I’d like to be doing what he’s doing. I’d like to be like him!”

When I saw his name helming a Music Criticism course at the Festival and Summer School for Pianists at Manchester’s historic Chetham’s School of Music this year, there was no thinking twice before signing up. I was finally getting to meet one of the piano world’s most influential writers, movers and shakers.

Bryce Morrison strikes an easy pose.

Chetham’s Music Criticism course

Anybody expecting “Music Criticism 101” or “How to be a music critic in 3 easy lessons” is bound to be sorely disappointed. Bryce Morrison’s class and course is as free and easy as one could possibly imagine. It was all about sharing of personal experiences, musical and otherwise, but no chalkboard didactics, verbal jousting, crafting of snarky remarks or written assignments. Students came in and out of Room 1.29 of the Palatine Building as they pleased, and those who plucked up enough courage to face the critic, performed played their piano pieces. An impromptu masterclass on performance and musical phrasing would ensue, and sometimes even a mini-concert.

Morrison is a raconteur extraordinaire, whose stories filled the room with incessant exclamations and laughter. He would also heartily join in, arching back his gangling frame and emitting a loud “Oooo…ooh!” in his distinct baritone voice, with a crescendo towards the end. There isn’t a good anecdote that isn’t worth repeating, and he is a wellspring of these. Over forty years of attending and reviewing concerts, judging piano competitions and wallowing in CD recordings do not count for nothing.

There’s very little in the piano world that he does not know. However Morrison is not too proud to concede a lack of knowledge in certain arcane areas, such as Soulima Stravinsky’s cadenzas for Mozart piano concertos, or the finer differences between Rameau and Couperin’s harpsichord music, just to name a couple subjects brought up by the class. He also demurred on my suggestion on taking the class on a conducted tour of the Manchester City Art Gallery. Anything else, he’s a cornucopia of knowledge and wisdom, dishing up lots of helpful advice and tips.

All ears as the music critic speaks.

A question of music criticism

Morrison considers himself first a music teacher, and second a music critic. “We are all music critics,” he added, “When we attend concerts, we are enlarging our vision and are always interested in speaking with someone else about the experience.” Being a literary person, he quoted Keats, “I believe in the holiness of the heart’s affections” and expounded on how music critics love the challenge of sharing and celebrating musical greatness. There are some pre-requisites: knowledge, enthusiasm and the ability to write and articulate your views, “As a writer, you would want to explain what you have experienced.” He also wisely cautioned, “We do not enjoy tearing people to bits, seriously!”

To the oft-quoted Sibelius who wrote, “No statue has ever been erected for a critic”, he countered with Samuel Johnson’s “The function of a critic is to improve opinion into knowledge.” To this end, Morrison has been an endless proselytiser for many pianists and performances for whom posterity might have left in the desert.

Van Cliburn’s famous Moscow “live” recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata might not have seen the light of day had he not brought it to the attention of RCA’s executives. He also played a major role in rehabilitating the reputation of the once-unfashionable Jorge Bolet in his final decades, and has written a yet unpublished biography of him. His other pet pianistic passions: the tragic Terence Judd, the kooky Eileen Joyce and the inconveniently named Germaine Thyssens-Valentin. Some of their all-but-forgotten legacies are now available on CD, thanks to his championship.

As to actually writing reviews, there are no hard and fast rules. His simple advice was: have good opening and closing sentences, and keep your reader hooked. He gave the example of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, with its opening sentence, “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.” Does that make you want to read the rest of the book?

Beginnings as a pianist

Morrison comes from a family of doctors in Yorkshire and his father was a GP (sounds familiar?). His inclination was however in the arts and studied English literature in Canterbury and London, and completed his post-doctoral thesis on D.H.Lawrence in Dallas, Texas. He also studied the piano and his teachers included Ronald Smith, Iso Ellinson (who also taught John Ogdon) in UK, and the Russian-Jewish émigré Alexander Uninsky in Texas. He was also housed and mentored by the late American pianist Eugene List.

Uninsky would always (wrongly) address him as “Bruce” in his thick Russian accent, and that name stuck for whoever did not know that its variation Bryce existed. He was to so influence the young Morrison that a career in music became inevitable, much to his parents’ chagrin. Thus began a young pianist’s burgeoning concert career that took him to many towns in Texas and the Southern states. Among his pieces he regularly performed were Liszt’s Vallee d’Obermann and Villa-Lobos’ Impressoes seresteiras. About the latter, he has a favourite anecdote: one involving him being totally sloshed at a party and dedicating it to “all his beautiful Brazilian friends”. Needless to say, he played like a drunk David Helfgott.

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