Thursday, 15 March 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, March 2018)

Singapore Symphony Children's Choir
Wong Lai Foon (Conductor)
Singapore Symphony Group  / ****1/2

This recording was conceived in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Singapore Symphony Children's Choir. The choir was formed in 2007 and made its debut in the Singapore premiere of Mahler's Third Symphony

This is a short disc but amply displays the choir's versatility under one of its founder conductors Wong Lai Foon. There are popular items such as Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus (arranged by Briant Trant), Richard Rodgers' The Sound Of Music (arr. Charles Smith),  Joe Hisaishi's Kimi Wo Nosete (Carrying You, arr. Yu Fukuzawa), and John Rutter's It Was A Lover And His Lass. The 52-member choir sings with purity, innocence and very good discipline.

The longest item is Bob Chilcott's A Little Jazz Mass, which positively swings through its five liturgical movements. High class backing is provided by pianist Gabriel Hoe and principal musicians of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, including bassist Guennadi Mouzyka and Mark Suter on drums. 

There are also two Singaporean works, Lee Chin Sin's lovely A Child's Voice and Chen Zhangyi's slightly modernistic Water. The choir's mastery of the latter's idiom and subtle dissonances suggests it can handle Benjamin Britten's choral scores next. A very pleasant listening experience, so more of the same please. 

Friday, 9 March 2018


Here is a piano recital you will not want to miss if you love piano sonatas. Multiple-award winning Korean pianist Chi-Ho Han will perform just two works in his Victoria Concert Hall recital: Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata and Liszt's Sonata in B minor. You will not bigger sonatas than these!

CHI-HO HAN Piano Recital
Victoria Concert Hall
Tuesday 20 March 2018, 7.30 pm

BEETHOVEN Sonata No.29 in B flat major,
   Op.106 "Hammerklavier"
LISZT Sonata in B minor

Tickets available at SISTIC:

Enjoy a 20% discount on tickets when you use this code: HAN20

Thursday, 8 March 2018

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2018)

The Complete Studio Recordings
Decca Eloquence 482 6291 (10 CDs) / *****

Eileen Joyce (1908-1991), Britain’s glamour lady of the piano during the 1930s to 1950s, came from humble origins. She was born in Tasmania and spent her childhood years in Perth. She received formal musical studies in Leipzig, and later in London where she made her breakthrough. 

At her prime, she was known to play three or four piano concertos - each in different outfits - within a single concert. She however retired abruptly in 1960 from career burnout. Her studio recordings date from 1933 to 1958, and originally appeared on the Parlophone, Columbia, Decca, HMV and Saga labels. Now reissued by Universal Music Australia, these show her at her brilliant best.

She had a very large concerto repertoire, but recorded only a few, including those by Grieg, Mendelssohn (No.1), Tchaikovsky (No.2), Rachmaninov (No.2, she was the pianist on the sound track for the 1945 movie Brief Encounter), John Ireland and Shostakovich (No.1). The latter two concertos found in her an ardent champion. There is also a curious excursion into harpsichord territory, of which there are several J.S.Bach concertos for multiple keyboards to enjoy.

Joyce will be best remembered for playing short encore-like pieces, a genre where she was peerless. A 78 rpm shellac disc from 1933 which coupled Liszt's La Leggierezza and Paul de Schlozer's finger-twisting Etude in A flat major became an instant bestseller. She then made lots more shorts, all dictated by the four-and-a-half minute time limit per side. 

Forgotten pieces by d'Albert, Bergman, Pick-Mangiagalli, Farjeon, Stavenhagen, Cyril Scott and Friedman all get a deserved hearing. Her mercurial yet sensitive playing harks from a bygone age, and this box-set is a priceless listen.             

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

SONGS OF LIU SANJIE / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (3 March 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 March 2018 with the title "Breezy take on Liu Sanjie coupled with catchy tunes."

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra's annual collaboration in this year's Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts was the world premiere of a concert production based on the iconic 1961 movie-musical Liu Sanjie. Liu Sanjie (Third Sister Liu) was the legendary heroine of the Zhuang people of Guangxi, renowned for her expressive singing and indomitable spirit.

A beautiful view of the Li River and its karst landscape
was the backdrop for this concert. 

Hailed a symbol of resistance against corrupt feudal landlords, the original movie depicted the  triumph of proletariats against greedy landowning bourgeoisie. Using songs originally written by Lei Zhen Bang, Cultural Medallion recipient Law Wai Lun's adaptation and orchestration trimmed the 110-minute content to a more manageable 80 minutes, while toning down its overtly socialist message.

The movie poster for Liu Sanjie
starring Huang Wanqiu as the heroine.

Central to the music is the shan ge (song of the hill-tribes), sung by the protagonist and her allies. Once heard, the catchy melodies and their variants ring in the ears, almost impossible to be rid of. This was especially when sung by soprano Wang Qing Shuang, who brilliantly sounded the part while looking a paradigm of virtue and innocence in her ethnic outfit designed by Max Tan and Yuan Zhiying.

Supporting her were tenor Jonathan Charles Tay (as love interest Ah Niu), soprano Peng Siran (sidekick Zhou Mei) and baritone William Lim (Old Fisherman), who were excellent in their portrayals. Opposing them stood Alvin Chiam (villain Mo Huai Ren in a speaking role) with his beard-stroking malevolence and evil laughter. His lackeys were the bumbling comedic trio of tenors Raymond Lee, Jeremy Koh and baritone Alvin Tan, taking a leaf from Ping, Pang and Pong from Puccini's Turandot.

Although referred to as a choral symphony, this was more a cantata in six seamlessly connected movements. One might have expected the climax to have taken place in the much-anticipated song duel between Liu Sanjie and the three hapless scholars, as in the movie. That was in the 3rd movement, just before the intermission, when the spunky youth easily vanquished her adversaries with quick retorts and thinly-veiled insults.

But no, “The Competition” merely served like a prelude to the 4th and 5th movements' melodic delights where Liu and Ah Niu's love duet better fleshed out their personalities. These were separated by tense dissonant moments from the orchestra depicting Liu's abduction and incarceration by Mo's minions. This was short-lived with the heroes plotting a ridiculously easy getaway.

Goh Boon Teck's direction in the semi-staged production ensured that the narrative was breezy and fluently executed without missing the essence of the endeavour. Yeh Tsung's orchestra accompanied sympathetically, although the amplified solo voices and those of the Vocal Associates Festival Choruses (Khor Ai Ming, Chorus Mistress) were occasionally obscured.

The final movement''s big tune Folksongs Are Like The River In Spring reiterated the triumph of singing, this time with percussionist Shen Guo Qin's drum-set ensuring a Broadway and bright lights feel-good ending that drew a standing ovation. Had Liu Sanjie turned capitalist? That will be one for the books.         

Wang Qing Shuang with Jonathan Charles Tay,
Alvin Chiam and Jeremy Koh.
Director Goh Boon Teck, conductor Yeh Tsung and
composer Law Wai Lun receiving their accolades.

HAPPY CHINESE NEW YEAR CONCERT 2018 / Ding Yi Music Company / Review

Ding Yi Music Company
China Cultural Centre Theatre
Sunday (4 March 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 March 2018 with the title "Chinese New Year spirit resonates at concert".

It is a few days past the official Chinese New Year period but the spirit lingered on in this festive Ding Yi Music Company concert conducted by Assistant Conductor Dedric Wong De Li. Neat symmetry distinguished its programming, as each half began with an instrumental prelude, followed by a concertante work before closing with vocal selections.

The concert began with See Chee Hang's The Battle Of The Snake And Bee, a fine showcase of counterpoint combining Nie Er's Wild Dance Of The Golden Snake and Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight Of The Bumble Bee. Both pieces were familiar, but whoever thought of bringing the hissing and buzzing together?

Ding Yi specialises in putting a new spin on Chinese classics, and this also transpired in the second half's opener, Gao Jia's jazzy arrangement of the Taiwanese favourite Ladies Of Alishan which had Desmond Soo and Fred Chan on erhus accompanied by double-bass, vibraphone and drums. 

A nod to the Chinese zodiac was found in Su Wen-Cheng's The Garden After Rain which was inspired by a downpour when the composer was playing with his canine pet. Soloist Kenny Chan on zhongruan cast a spell in its slow first half, which sounded much like Spanish guitar music.

At its climax, disaster struck when one of his strings snapped. He was fortunately prepared, as a spare ruan was whipped out for the fast and busier conclusion, thus avoiding a dog's breakfast and achieving a brilliant finale.    

There was a world premiere in Zhong Zhiyue's Metaphysical North with cellist Chee Jun Sian in three short connected movements. Over a morass of bleakness and scraping dissonance, the cello sang a plaintive song, its lyricism later morphing into tension and agitation in a closing shaman's wild dance.

The vocal segments were arguably the selling points for the sold-out pair of concerts. Classical singer He Cai Xia provided the rustic resonance to Folk Song, Spring River from the famous musical film Liu Sanjie. Her two other songs came from television dramas, Zhang Qian Yi's The Beautiful Tibetan Plateau (from The Road To Heaven) and Zhao Ji Ping's  Love From Afar (Qiao's Grand Courtyard), the passion of which tugged on the heart-strings.

Altogether different were the musings of jazz singer Joanna Dong, celebrated finalist of Sing! China, who provided a popular vibe. Love Tunes 1990 was initially dogged by a microphone malfunction during her entry but she maintained a coolness and composure that made the final version even more alluring.

Comfortable singing in both Mandarin and English, she alternated between languages and idioms effortlessly in Jay Chou's Simple Love and Jon Hendrick's I Want Your Love. Memorable too was her stock-in-trade wordless “trumpeting” which would have made Louis Armstrong proud. Her encore of Chinese New Year staple He Xin Nian was so jazzed up as to be almost unrecognisable and sexy to boot. Shopping in Chinatown will never be the same again.

Monday, 5 March 2018

LEEDS INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION 2018: 11 Pianists To Perform 1st Round Recitals In Singapore

The First Round of the Leeds International Piano Competition 2018 takes place in April, hosted by three cities: Berlin, Singapore and New York. 68 pianists will vie for a place in the Quarter-finals which takes place in Leeds in September this year.

The Singapore "audition" takes place at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory on Sunday 8 April 2018, held over two sessions at 2 pm (6 pianists) and 7 pm (5 pianists). Each pianist will perform a recital lasting between 25 to 30 minutes.

Vokhmianina, Wong, T.G.Lee, Wang, Yoh & Park.
Li, Hao, Hsieh, Han & C.Lee (L to R).

The pianists taking part are:

Session 1 (2.00 - 5.00 pm)

Kseniia Vokhmianina (Ukraine/Singapore)
Rhythmie Wong (Hong Kong)
Taek Gi Lee (South Korea)
Chao Wang (China)
Hao Zi Yoh (Malaysia)
Jinhyung Park (South Korea)

Session 2 (7.00 - 10.00 pm)

Bowen Li (China/Australia)
Yilei Hao (China)
Wei Ting Hsieh (Taiwan)
Hee Jun Han (South Korea)
Clarence Lee (Singapore)

Admission to the recitals is free, and available by registration:

On the same day, Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa, a member of the First Round jury and 3rd prize winner in the 1987 Leeds Competition, will give a piano masterclass to Yong Siew Toh Conservatory students at the Orchestral Hall (3rd floor) at 11 am.

PAUL LEWIS Piano Recital / Review

PAUL LEWIS Piano Recital
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Friday (2 March 2018)

The great Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel once declared he played only “music that is better than it can be performed”. The same may be said about the repertoire of British pianist Paul Lewis for his four recitals in Singapore, the first of which took place this evening. Two Haydn sonatas were the bookends for short pieces by Beethoven and Brahms, a programme that was a celebration of Viennese classics.

Crisp articulation and humour occupied Haydn's Sonata No.50 in C major, sometimes known as his “English” Sonata. Often underrated, Haydn's music sparkled in Lewis' hands. Its 1st movement had both light and shade, aided by excellent pedalling which generated a crystalline texture which contrasted with staccato voices that was its main narrative. The serious slow movement was merely the prelude to a finale that ranked as Haydn's most witty – a good old C major rondo peppered with “wrong” harmonies, twists and turns that was pure comedy relief.

Then followed the Six Bagatelles Op.126 of Beethoven, sublime shorts from his late years. All different in character and colour, Lewis provided the necessary contrasts, alternating between slow and fast numbers which were either prayers, chorales or dances. The strains and drones of a hurdy-gurdy were heard in the fourth bagatelle, as earthy as Beethoven could possibly get. And then it was pure concentrated musical gold in the next number, which was simply celestial.

It was Schnabel who also said that he played recitals with “second halves that were as boring as the first halves”. He meant that as a joke, of course. Lewis's second half was a mirror image of the first, opening with Brahms Six Pieces Op.118 and closing with another Haydn sonata. Now the palette (or palate when it comes to musical sustenance) was firmly in the Romantic era. It was another kaleidoscopic show of musical characterisation in the pieces which included four Intermezzi, one Ballade and one Romance.

Passion (No.1) and melting lyricism (No.2) sat easily with rambunctiousness (No.3) and agitation (No.4), followed by the benediction of No.5 and what was to be Brahms' bleakest short piece. Dark clouds in E flat minor enveloped the last Intermezzo (No.6) in E flat minor, a portent of death and doom, before one last heroic struggle and final collapse. There was a long silence after its quiet close, before an eruption of appreciative applause.

Humour returned for a last time in Haydn's Sonata No.40 in G major, a work in only two movements. Simplicity ruled in the 1st movement's theme which got gradually more decorative in the ensuing short variations, and there were quirky shifts in dynamics thrown in to unsettle those who got a little too comfortable. The presto finale, breathless in intent, was thrown off like light fluff and its simple unadorned close drew both laughs and applause from the audience.

With all his jokes used up, Lewis offered as encores Schubert's darkly shaded Allegretto in C minor and a sneak preview of his next concert, a tiny Beethoven bagatelle (Op.119 No.11). Another evening of “music that is better than it can be played” is keenly awaited.     

Thursday, 1 March 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, March 2018)

Violin Sonata Op.134 / 24 Preludes Op.34
Naxos 8.573753 / ****1/2

The young Russian violinist Sergei Dogadin, 1st prize winner of the recently-concluded Singapore International Violin Competition 2018, had already made several recordings before his Singapore triumph. Just issued is this 2016 recording of violin music from the great Soviet era Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

Shostakovich wrote only one violin sonata, a late work from 1968 when he was in ill health. Opening with the darkest of moods that was typical in his old age, it closes with a passacaglia of unremitting bleakness. In between is a savage scherzo of lacerating abrasiveness that does little to lighten the ambience. 

Dogadin and compatriot pianist Nikolai Tokarev are faithful advocates and are excellent in execution. They, however, but do not quite match the intensity in the definitive Melodiya recording by its dedicatee David Oistrakh with Sviatoslav Richter on piano. 

On the other extreme of the spectrum are violin transcriptions of Shostakovich’s youthful 24 Preludes Op.34 (1932-33) for piano which are short, varied, and often laced with sardonic humour. 

Violinist Dmitri Tsyganov, a member of the Beethoven Quartet, had transcribed 19 of these, leaving the set tantalisingly incomplete. It was left for contemporary Russian composer Lera Auerbach to fill in the blanks. Dogadin and Tokarev capture well the music's schizophrenic shifts and multifarious nuances in rather enjoyable performances. 

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

CIRCULO / TO Ensemble / Review

TO Ensemble
Play Den, The Arts House
Sunday (25 February 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 February 2018 with the title "Musings of childhood days and memories".

One never knows what to expect in a TO Ensemble concert. In Circulo, the ensemble was pared down to just composer Tze Toh on piano and guest flautist Roberto Alvarez from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, supported by Akileshvar VM (percussion) and Wendy Phua (electric bass), and a bawling infant.

How an infant-in-arms was even admitted into a formal ticketed concert remained a mystery. Providing an unscripted high-pitched counterpoint for the longest part of the music's duration, it raised concerns but nothing was done. It, however, did little to faze the performers who stuck to their jobs by being simply brilliant.

Unlike past concerts, there were no post-apocalyptic back-story or survival tales to be told but the three suites that formed the narrative roughly united Alvarez's hometown of Asturias on the northern Spanish coast and Tze's Singapore. Both included sea-faring cultures and there was a pervasive element of nostalgia, fondly looking back at childhood days and memories.

The Prologue opened atmospherically with the piano's gentle musings, then accompanied by intakes and outtakes of breath on the flute but no notes. This was the wind, from small blasts to swirling eddies before the emergence of a simple folk-like melody.

Chapter One was The Sea, with a rhythmic dance and percussively staccato beat from the flute in Asturias. City / Metropolis 2018 and The Adventure continued with a busier and more upbeat pace, when drums and bass joined in. The Spanish vibe turned more Middle Eastern in feel, with interesting harmonic progressions hammered out on piano.

The Myths And Legends of Chapter Two began with a playful etude-caprice on solo flute, almost a superhuman effort in breath control in The Boy, The Pirate And The Magician. Piano and percussion entered in Satyvaan Savithri which alternated hypnotically between G major and G minor. Despite its Indian title, was the influence Moorish? And how much further before reaching Singapore?

Deep piano rumblings provided a Lisztian mood to Nuberu / The Cloud Master, matched by equally dark colours from the flute, but this soon morphed from night to day with a jazzy romp to conclude the chapter.     

All through this, the baby did its best to colour the proceedings. But then for stretches, quiet prevailed. Had music the charms to soothe the savage beast? No, timely spots of spontaneous breastfeeding in full view of the audience did the trick.

Circulo, the third chapter, began with a nocturne or night piece. A balmy, echo-filled and somewhat oppressive solo flute introduction gave way to the piano's more active arpeggios. All fetters were then thrown off in Fiesta, where all four players broke out in an all-out Cuban dance. How much was scored, and how much was improvised was only best known to the performers themselves.

The final movement, Child's Play, was unabashedly Romantic in feel. By now, the baby and its family – the only local element discernible – had left the hall. Anyway, thanks for the mammaries.

Both Tze and Roberto shared freely
in the post-concert discussion.
A new take on the programme's cover!

Monday, 26 February 2018


This is no drill.


The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has released long-awaited details of this year's Singapore International Piano Festival (the celebratory 25th or Silver anniversary) which takes place from 7 to 13 June. Four pianists had already been named in last year's festival, but the festival's Facebook posts had suggested big names coming up for two additional nights, but little did we know who they were going to be...

The line up is as follows:

Thursday 7 June: Seong-Jin Cho
Friday 8 June: Denes Varjon
Saturday 9 June: Jeremy Denk
Sunday 10 June: Dang Thai Son
All above concerts at Victoria Concert Hall, 7.30 pm.

Monday 11 June: 
Martha Argerich & Dario Ntaca
(Two Piano Recital)
Wednesday 13 June: 
Martha Argerich & Dario Ntaca
(Concertos with Singapore Symphony Orchestra)
Both concerts at Esplanade Concert Hall, 7.30 pm.

More details and ticket bookings to be found here: 

So what are you waiting for?