Friday, 23 September 2016

NANYANG IMPRESSIONS / Singapore Chinese Orchestra and NAFA Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
& NAFA Chinese Orchestra
Lee Foundation Theatre
Wednesday (21 September 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 September 2016 with the title "Showcase of Nanyang music".

Nanyang Music by nomenclature is a new genre of music, coined by Yeh Tsung and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. It had an official inauguration in 2006 with the First Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition. In actual fact, Nanyang music has always existed as indigenous music of the lands of Southeast Asia or works of local composers without such formal titles.

Nonetheless, the notion of incorporating Southeast Asian elements into Chinese instrumental music has take root, becoming a discrete artistic entity that cannot be ignored. This joint concert by the SCO and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Chinese Orchestra was a showcase of this music.

The SCO conducted by Quek Ling Kiong opened with young Singaporean composer Wang Chen Wei's Confluence, a short and colourful work that utilised the gamelan pelog scale in its principal melody. First heard on the guan and later on dizi following a yangqin cadenza, the Indonesian character of its graceful sashays was unshakeable.

More subtle was Chew Jun An's Colours Of Rain with its impressionistic hues in two discernible sections. The first was dissonant, with a torrential storm looming over pelting ostinatos. This contrasted with the second which approximated light precipitation, with a plaintive melody from dizis and sheng gliding over the harp's accompaniment.

The NAFA Chinese Chamber Ensemble performed without conductor, opening with Phoon Yew Tien's Divertimento on Malay Folk Songs. Lightly scored, plucked and bowed strings sang out short motifs and whole tunes from the popular Lenggang Kangkong, Rasa Sayang and Dayong Sampan. A larger ensemble then offered Law Wai Lun's A Walk In The Rain, which is a sympathetic treatment of a Hakka folk melody.

The SCO and NAFA Chinese Orchestra joined forces for the final two works of the concert. The first was Jiang Ying's Hot Melody of Southeast Asia, a pretentious piece of kitsch that just about matched its banal title. The term “hot” referred to the jazzy Afro-American idioms that so captivated Europe during the 1920s and 30s.

What was heard was merely a watered down imitation of Leroy Anderson's various light pieces, played with little regard to jazz harmonies or nuances. And its selling point from Southeast Asia? Perhaps the music is fit for an a-go-go club in Geylang or Patpong...

Far better was Sarawakian Simon Kong's Izpirazione II, an orchestral suite inspired by three thick-skinned East Malaysian fruits. Its movements Durian, Rambutan and Tarap corresponded to a prelude, scherzo and danzon. Durian was premised on a recurring short motif that spelt anticipation of an aromatic feast, while the fast and piquant Rambutan was built on the repetitive rhythms inherent in its spelling.

For the finale, conductor Quek got the audience clapping and stamping their feet to the raucous  dance of Tarap while he filled in with guttural tribal chants. The encore was par for the course of the mid-Autumn Festival as Hua Hao Yue Yuan made for a celebratory send-off. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2016)

Complete Deutsche Grammophon Recordings
DG 479 4651 (24 CDs) / *****

Emil Gilels (1916-1985) was one of two great Ukraine-born Soviet pianists to emerge and charm the West during the height of the Cold War, the other being the longer-lived and better-known Sviatoslav Richter. Commemorating the centenary of Gilels’ birth, the German yellow label has reissued its archive of his complete studio recordings, made during a relatively short window from 1970 to 1985.

His playing is warm and generous, extremely musical and never obsessed with virtuosity for its own sake. These are best heard in both of Brahms’ piano concertos (with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Eugen Jochum), possibly the best in the catalogue, Brahms’ First Piano Quartet, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, the short musings of Grieg's Lyric Pieces and four-hand works by Mozart and Schubert (with his daughter Elena).

His premature death following a botched surgical procedure meant his Beethoven sonata cycle was tantalisingly incomplete (he had 5 sonatas to go), but one fortunately gets to hear his Gramophone Award-winning Hammerklavier Sonata, which is magnificent. 

Gilels' earlier recordings on Melodiya from the 1930-50s issued by the Westminster label includes recitals (with Scarlatti, Schumann, Liszt, Medtner and various encores) and chamber music. There is however no Khachaturian piano concerto as one cover wrongly displays, but the third concertos of Prokofiev and Kabalevsky. Here are many hours of rewarding listening.      

TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto
MusicaAeterna / Teodor Currentzis
Sony Classical 88875165122 / ***1/2

First off, kudos to Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis and his orchestra and opera chorus from the Russian city of Perm for attempting this adventurous coupling of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky with the celebration of Russian peasantry as a common theme. There are staged photographs of a village wedding with him and Russian-Austrian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja as husband and wife with love letters serving as programme notes. As a concept, this is first rate.

However, Kopatchinskaja's “brave new world” view of Tchaikovsky's popular Violin Concerto is one of the ugliest on record. Her preening demeanour, alternating slashing and percussive bowing, with deliberate extremes of dynamics and dry vitriolic tone is jarring. This may come across as exciting in concert but makes for irritating repeated listening. She decries “moronic violinism” in her notes, but that is exactly what she serves up.

This is fortunately offset by one of the best recordings of Stravinsky's choral ballet Les Noces (The Wedding), which truly captures the raucous and earthy happenings of rustic matrimonials. Sung in Russian, the soloists and chorus are undeniably authentic and vividly recorded. So, its 2 stars for the Tchaikovsky and 5 for Stravinsky, which makes 3 and a half in total.

Monday, 19 September 2016

MOZART & MAHLER / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (17 September 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 September 2016 with the title "Angelic outing from virtuosos". 

There was another evening of chamber music at the Conservatory, but it was more of a local variety. The Conservatory's faculty comprises real virtuosos in their own right, and it was a pleasure to hear them perform in Mozart's Quintet in E flat major (K.452) for piano and winds.

The Conservatory's emerald green Bösendorfer grand piano was wheeled out. Pianist Bernard Lanskey (Conservatory Director) towered over the keyboard with his back against the audience and four wind players faced him. This unusual placement worked well because the sound was homogeneous, with the mellow-sounding piano not over-powering the others. 

The winds' opening chord set the tone, and the piano's crisply articulated introduction soon got the opening movement underway. Interplay between guest clarinettist Dimitri Ashkenazy and faculty members Rachel Walker (oboe), Zhang Jin Min (bassoon) and Han Chang Chou (French horn) was excellent, especially in the serenade-like Larghetto slow movement when each took turns in juicy solos to luxuriate.

The finale with its chirpy theme was another delight, as the sheer clarity of each part shone through. Tempos were kept brisk and perky, adding to the movement's rustic and bucolic quality as it danced its way to a cheerful close.

Here was an august collection of highly-skilled soloists, and the same should be said of the young players from the Conservatory Chamber Ensemble who performed in German conductor Klaus Simon's arrangement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. The shortest and most lightly scored of the Austrian composer's ten symphonies was further reduced to one instrument per part, which made for some interestingly transparent sounds.

Just as unusual was the scoring for piano (played by Foo Yi Xuan), accordion (Syafiqah 'Adha Sallehin) and harp (Charmaine Teo) which helmed much of the accompaniment. Conductor Chan Tze Law, arguably Singapore's most important Mahler conductor, kept a tight rein on the proceedings and the end result was never hectic or hurried.

Once one got used to the Viennese palm court band sound, Mahler's music pretty much spoke for itself. The sleigh-ride jingles of the opening movement rang out purposefully, and it was soon apparent that every player was on the top of his or her game despite their highly-exposed parts.

Special mention goes to first violinist Liu Minglun who adroitly alternated between two violins in the scherzo-like 2nd movement. One violin was tuned to a higher pitch to produce a sinister and discomfiting effect depicting “Death playing the fiddle”. The spectre of mortality loomed high in this ironic movement, but was laid low for the lovely slow 3rd movement which breathed a leisurely and rarefied air.

This paved the entrance of German soprano Felicitas Fuchs, garbed in an emerald green  gown, to sing the verses of Das Himmlischer Leben (The Heavenly Life). This was a child's vision of celestial delights, and even if she did not try too hard to sound childlike, the sheer beauty of her voice backed by musicians in their angelic best was otherworldly bliss.   


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Friday (16 September 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 September 2016 with the title "Stunning work from quartet".

It is no secret that Beethoven's string quartets are hardly performed on concert stages here. Over-reverence and trepidation on the part of local musicians will account for this, and audiences are the poorer as a result. Thus it was a treat to witness an evening of Beethoven quartets performed by the world-renowned Takács Quartet.

Formed in 1975 by four Hungarian students in Budapest, it is presently based in Boulder, Colorado with two of the original members still performing. The interpretation of Beethoven's 16 string quartets is the bedrock of its repertoire, and the three quartets performed also neatly corresponded with the German composer's “three periods” of composition.

From the “early period” was the congenial G major Quartet (Op.18 No.2), following earlier models of Haydn and Mozart but displaying signs of an independent, free-spirited mind. From the outset, the ensemble showed why it is considered one of the world's finest. First violinist Edward Dusinberre's leadership is impeccable, his entries direct and clear-headed, with his colleagues in close audio, visual and almost telepathic contact.

The foursome – with second violinist Karoly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist Andras Fejer - coalesced as one although each part could be distinctly discerned. This was a coming together of singular minds with the ultimate objective of cohesion and projection that was keenly maintained over the 2-hour long programme. When the surface calm was stirred, as in the 1st movement's development, the pacing and dissonance level was upped, but the quartet remained resolute.

As jarring contrast, the F minor Quartet (Op.95) from Beethoven's “middle period” was storm and stress in its four minor-key movements. Its nickname “Serioso” was taken seriously, as muscle and sinew strained to deliver its alternatingly angry and sombre message. Yet there were subtle gradations within this angst and indignation, which the quartet brought out trenchantly. With the wave of a wand, the finale's turned from darkness to light of a major-key to finish with an acute start.

The second half was reserved for the C sharp minor Quartet (Op.131) from the “late period”. Here Beethoven broke all the moulds in this 40-minute-long utterance of seven connected movements. The mind boggled at the myriad changes of mood, emotion and disposition that took place in this journey of the soul, wrought by the stone-deaf, disease-wracked and spiritually-scarred personality.

Dusinberre's stark opening solo issued like a cry for help, to which the other strings piled on their responses in a contrapuntal maze. Before any resolution could be had, the jolly 2nd movement and interlude-like 3rd movement arrived before the 4th movement's theme and variations. The quartet kept the audience listening, and enthralled as to what might just happen next.

Such is the elusive narrative quality of absolute music, that only an outfit like the Takács can convey with such utter immediacy and vividness. By the close of the passionately hewn finale, the chorus of bravos that rang out was a just indication of their stunning success.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

BORDERLANDS / Singapore International Festival of Arts / Review

Wu Man (Pipa) & 
Master Musicians from the Silk Route
Singapore International 
Festival of Arts 2016
SOTA Theatre Studio
Thursday (15 September 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 September 2016 with the title "Tracing roots of pipa in journey of discovery".

In Borderlands, world-renowned pipa virtuosa Wu Man traced the roots of her instrument all the way to Central Asia, to a time of antiquity when cross-fertilisation of different cultures was a way of life. For this concert, she was joined by five Uyghur musicians and a dancer from Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China's Far West.

A contemplative pipa solo Gobi Desert At Sunset by Wu ushered in Chebiyat Muqam, the first of several excerpts from muqams to be performed. A muqam is the traditional Uygur suite of pieces involving poetry, singing, instrumental music and dance. Typically a muqam would take several hours to complete and the full set of 12 could last the best part of a day.

For the purpose of this evening, Chebiyat Muqam, essentially an extended love song with erotic undertones, breezed through 25 minutes of sensuous and often exuberant music. The chief protagonist was vocalist Sanubar Tursun who also strummed on a dutar (a long-necked lute), whose pristine voice and haunting inflexions recalled an ancient age and exotic locales.

In the feverish climaxes, she was joined by Mijiti Younusi (on tambur, another plucked lute), Rexiati Abudureheman (satar, bowed lute), Adili Abudukelimu (kalun, a dulcimer struck by sticks) and Alifu Saideke (hand drum), who added their male voices to the fray. Time stood still for this unlikely entertainment, which had the drawing power of a muezzin's call to prayer, heady aroma of freshly burnt incense and earthly pleasures of a seraglio.

All the singing was in Uyghur, a Turkic language still spoken in Xinjiang alongside Han Chinese putonghua. An added visual element was the colourful presence of dancer Delare Maimaitiyiming whose nodding head movements and swirling revolutions took on the spectacular in Mountain Spring. Here she balanced six bowls on the top of her head without spilling a drop of water.

It was back to Wu Man, who assimilated her journey of discovery of Central Asian music in Song of the Kazakh, a virtuoso showpiece far removed from Chinese pipa music which unveiled Western harmonies and hints of polyphony.

In Hanleyun, two songs were joined. The first was about life experiences, of how a nightingale who has not suffered winter would not know the joys of spring, and the second on a homeland that resembled the Garden of Eden. For Ajam, all the plucked strings came together for a slow to fast and vigorous love-in.

For the final muqam excerpts, dulcimer-player Abudukelimu displayed his throaty baritone-like vocals (Dolan Muqam) and joined dancer Maimaitiyiming in an animated “pas de deux” (Nawa Muqam), relating the plaints of a desert hermit and sage.

The 90-minute concert ended like how it started, in near total darkness, with Wu in pipa solo Night Thoughts, a study on solitude. Face to face with true artistry, how these precious minutes elapsed, like dew evaporating under the morning sun.   

Wu Man and her ensemble meet with
SSO violinists Kong Zhao Hui & Yin Shu Zhan.

Thursday, 15 September 2016


Paganini Lost and Found was the title of a lecture-recital given at the Lee Foundation Theatre of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts on Wednesday 14 September 2016. It appears to be a new approach to public music education adopted by the Academy, involving an informal discussion between faculty members and performances by students and alumni. 

The talk about Niccolo Paganini and the legacy spawned by his famous Caprice No.24 was moderated by composer-lecturer Zechariah Goh Toh Chai and the information provided to the audience was simple and avoided all technical jargon. Attended by a fairly sizeable audience including many children (who were well-behaved), this looks like something NAFA could do more of to make classical music approachable to lay-people.

The concert began with Chan Yoong Han
performing Paganini's Caprice No.24
with all its fiendish variations.
The panel of violinist Chan Yoong Han,
Dean of Music School Lim Yau and pianist
Nicholas Loh discussed about Paganini's legacy.
Just look at Nicholas' space-age boots. 
Young pianist Chen Yue performed Liszt's
Paganini Etude No.6, which was a literal
transcription of the caprice on piano.
The duo of Song Yuexuan and Zou Yuanxu
gave an excellent performance on 2 pianos of
Lutoslawski's Paganini Variations,
filled with harmonic and dynamic quirks.
Winnie Chua performed Robert Muczynski's
Desperate Measures with much aplomb,
a jazzy look at the popular theme.
Arguably the best performance of the evening
came from saxophonists Michellina Chan & Alexis Seah
with pianist Jessica Leong in Jun Nagao's Paganini Lost,
a most exuberant jazz showpiece.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Photos from DOCTORS WITH A CAUSE Concert / A Causeway ExChange event

Here's a shameless bit of self-promotion. I was recently invited to perform a 15-minute mini piano recital in a concert Doctors With A Cause at Alexandra Hospital on Tuesday (13 September 2016). This was part of the Causeway EXChange programme of events which has been promoting bilateral ties through the arts between Singapore and Malaysia since 2010.  

This was the first time that medical doctors have been involved, with the idea that good music can also be therapeutic, even when delivered by people who are more often viewed as pill-pushers and MC-issuers. Doctors from both Singapore and Malaysia performed in this concert, playing on one of the "Lang Lang" grand pianos designed by Steinway that have been donated to various schools and organisations in Singapore last year.

It is customary to get the least spectacular person
to perform first! And I played all slow pieces:
the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor,
the Bach-Siloti Air in D major and
Rachmaninov's Vocalise in Alan Richardson's
transcription. Wonder how many people kept awake.
Dr Thevi Thanigasalam, an ophthalmologist
in Malacca performed the 1st movement from
Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata and
Chopin's Scherzo No.2 completely from memory.
Dr Au Kah Kay, another one of the usual suspects,
played the Schumann-Liszt Widmung
and Chopin's Barcarolle.
And here are the doctor-pianists!
Doctor turned stand-up comedian Dr Jason Leong
from Kuala Lumpur showed how
laughter is the best medicine
by regaling the audience with stories about his
Proton Wira and how MY is "different" from SG.
Like Saturday Night Live, there was a wonderful
world music band At Adau from Kuching, Sarawak
which performed a selection of updated indigenous
songs on traditional and modern instruments.
Some nifty Orang Ulu moves from
At Adau's tribal dancer.
Dr Thevi and Juju,
the Korean drummer of At Adau
Musicians and jokers unite!
Some well-deserved post-concert makan
at Newton Circus food centre.