Saturday, 21 January 2017

BACH CANTATAS WITH MASAAKI SUZUKI / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Thursday (19 January 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 January 2017

Eminent Japanese Bach scholar and conductor Masaaki Suzuki returned with another round of Johann Sebastian Bach's music with students of the Conservatory. As with last year's concert, the Ong Teng Cheong Professor of Music 2016/17 again drew a full house, keen to experience baroque music in the historically-informed tradition of period performance practice.

Although well-established in the West, this tradition is gradually gaining a foothold in Singapore, thanks to more young musicians formally studying its practice, enhanced by visiting luminaries such as Suzuki. This concert showcased two of Bach's 200-plus cantatas, with both halves opening with purely instrumental music.

Concertmaster Ryo Terakado, one of the world's great baroque violinists, took a seat in the Violin Concerto in A minor  (BWV.1041) as freshman Zhang Yuchen performed the solo. His was a very confident account, well-articulated with little vibrato. He projected well, and was superbly supported by the small Conservatory Chamber Ensemble taking cues from Suzuki's very precise direction.

Suzuki became soloist in his own arrangement of Cantata No.35, cast in the form of a three-movement Organ Concerto in D minor. Appropriating and recycling pre-existing works (and often other composers' music) into new pieces was common practice in the 18th century, and the result was an enjoyable outing on the Conservatory's new Garnier chamber organ.

The outer fast movements were adapted from purely orchestral movements called sinfonias (which had prominent organ solos anyway), and the slow movement was a lovely aria that showcased organ and Masamitsu San'nomiya's oboe da caccia (the antique “hunting oboe” with a curved tube) in lovely counterpoint, accompanied by just double-bass.  

The main courses were the sacred cantatas, with Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (Ah God, How Many A Heartache) BWV.3 performed in the first half. Here was the message that only God was the answer to the heart's woes, for those who believed in Him. The choir of 18 voices (16 students and 2 faculty members) were a pillar of strength in the opening and closing choruses.

Soloists were drawn from these voices. Baritone Jeong Daegyun was a standout in Empfind Ich Höllenangst und Pein (Although I Fear Hell's Angst and Pain), with tenor Fang Zhi following up strongly in the succeeding recitative. The duet of soprano Suyen Rae and mezzo-soprano Lu Pei-Yun blended prettily in Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen (When Cares Press Upon Me), finding consolation in each other's company.

The concert concluded with Alles nur nach Gottes Willen (Everything According To God's Will) BWV.72, an affirmation of one's faith in the divine. Another excellent choice, with two choruses and showcase of solo arias, this was the turn of soprano Li Wei-Wei to shine in Mein Jesus will es tun (My Jesus Wants To Do This), shading mezzo Lu's more tentative O selger Christ (O Blessed Is The Christian).

Regardless whether one adheres to Bach's religious beliefs or not, it was the sheer beauty of the music that was transcendent. Long may Suzuki's advocacy continue to spread this musical gospel here. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

EVENSONGS / Vox Camerata / Review

Vox Camerata
Yong Musicians Foundation Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Tuesday (17 January 2017)

The first choral concert of the year was given by Vox Camerata, a choir founded by Mohamed Shahril bin Mohamed Salleh which has a distinction of programming serious choral repertoire yet without subjecting its members to a formal audition. This open-handed and egalitarian approach, characterised by a total absence of snobbery, has been rewarded by seriously good performances in venues as diverse as the Armenian Church, School of the Arts and The Arts House.

Its Esplanade Concert Hall debut was backed by an orchestra, no less than the young and very promising The Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra. The concert opened without voices, in Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal's Cave, conducted by Ignatius Wang. The evenness of the playing was remarkable, led by very good strings (with ex-SSO veteran violinist Lim Shue Churn as concertmaster), and as the work progressed, a very fine woodwind section with an excellent clarinet principal. If the slow opening pages sounded little soporific in pace, it soon built up a head of steam. This was a performance of polish, if not one of raw passion and a little wildness. That would come with some more experience.

The chorus of Vox Camerata, joined by guests from the Anderson Junior College Alumni Choir and German Protestant Church Choir, had their say in Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs with baritone Brent Allcock as soloist, and conducted by Alvin Seville Arumugam. Using the poems of George Herbert, the music relived the English pastoral tradition which the New Zealander Allcock was totally at home with. His is a warm and reassuring voice that sounded gorgeous in the opening Easter, with the words “Rise, heart. Thy Lord is risen”, echoed with deep resonance from the chorus. This set the tone, further lit up with I Got Me Flowers, gently accompanied by harp and strings, and Love Bade Me Welcome, with subtle woodwind contributions and the chorus joining in later with fine and discreet unison humming.

Credit has to go to conductor Arumugam for his command of the orchestra, which was always sensitive to the voices, and never threatened to overwhelm. The transparency of the strings and  sublime woodwind solos were true to the music's gentle spirit. The Call was for a short but moving baritone solo, followed by the final song Antiphon, perhaps the most exciting for the chorus, which proclaimed “Let the world in every corner sing”, and meaning every word of it. Vaughan Williams is not often performed in Singapore, so this was indeed a real treat.

The strings remained onstage, joined by pianist Ong Seng Choo to accompany the choir in Gabriel Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine, which was conducted by Ignatius Wang. This short work breathes the same ethereal air as the French composer's Requiem, that is it sounds otherwordly. The men's voices that opened sounded uneven, with the volume weighted to the lower registers, but that soon leavened with the entry of the women. The strained voices sounded exposed here but the spirit with which the music was sung made up for this shortcoming.

It was laudable that in order to save trees, no programme booklets were printed for the concert, with all programme information and notes made available in a downloadable soft copy. The price to pay was that the audience applauded after every single movement, and that trend continued well into the second half.

The excellent orchestra was dispensed with in John Rutter's Magnificat, which was conducted by Vox Camerata Chorusmaster Shahril himself with Ong again on piano accompaniment. In this larger scale work, the chorus occupying centrestage under the acoustic canopy seemed overmatched by the venue, and some parts sounded thin as a result. A choir double its size would have been preferable, but make no mistake, it still brought out a gutsy and committed performance, full of heart and feeling.

The syncopated opening Magnificat was well-delivered, with a keen mastery of its tricky rhythms. Rutter's very tonal and highly approachable music risks sounding saccharine, so the chorus avoided over sentimentality in the slower movements. The 2nd movement, Of a Rose, a Lovely Rose, was poetically sung, contrasted with pomp and ceremony of Quia fecit mihi magna. Guest soprano Akiko Otao was a standout, her lovely voice wafted clearly over the chorus in Et Misericordia and Esurientes. If one wondered what an angel sounds like, this would be a pretty close approximation. There was a jazzy choral fugue in Fecit potentiam which was unfortunately not further elaborated by the composer, but the final Gloria patria recapped the opening's high spirits and the concert closed on a celebratory high.

The audience clearly enjoyed the music and effort put in the performance, and the applause showed it. Thus it was a pity that the performers chose to leave the stage at the very first opportunity, which curtailed any further plaudits. So there were no curtain calls at all! Here amateur musicians could take a leaf from their professional counterparts by staying onstage for a longer duration, and milk the applause for themselves and their collaborators what it is worth. This would be a lesson for future concert opportunities: You put in the hard work, so you deserve all the credit!   

CD Review (The Straits Times, January 2017)

Piano Themes From Cinema's Golden Age
BBC Concert Orchestra
Decca 478 9454 / ****1/2

Welcome to the 1940s and 50s world of the silver screen when film music all sounded like the piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninov. That the composer defected from Bolshevik Russia to live his last days in Beverley Hills seemed like the ultimate irony. 

Richard Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto, written for the 1941 British war movie Dangerous Moonlight, was the most famous example of movie music bringing together barnstorming pianism, dramatic gestures and lush Romantic orchestration. The earliest work in this genre however comes from 1940, in the little-known Portrait Of Isla from The Case Of The Frightened Lady by Jack Beaver which is every bit as sentimental.

Even Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich got into the act with his Assault On Beautiful Gorky from The Unforgettable Year 1919 (1951), which was his characteristic cinematic style but without the stock-in-trade grotesque jokes. Included also are Hubert Bath's Cornish Rhapsody (Love Story), Charles Williams' The Dream Of Olwen (While I Live) and Nino Rota's The Legend Of The Glass Mountain, which all sound more familiar than their titles suggest. 

The outliers are scores by Richard Rodney Bennett, Carl Davis and Dave Grusin, with contributions from the 1970s and 80s. Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa is in her element, bringing touches of glamour, romance and not to mention, virtuosity, to this unabashedly enjoyable album.  

Monday, 16 January 2017

A MUSIC VOYAGE AROUND THE ISLAND / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (14 January 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 January 2017 with the title "Playful take on Singapore-inspired music".

Nanyang music featured prominently in this Singapore Chinese Orchestra concert held for the first time in Victoria Concert Hall since its post-renovation opening, reason being that SCO's Singapore Conference Hall home is undergoing its own refurbishment. The sound of Chinese instruments resonated strongly in this reverberant space, opening with Zhang Xiao Feng's Singapura Overture conducted by SCO Assistant Conductor Moses Gay.

Its opening was Western before becoming distinctly Malay with its play of drumming. Then various motifs of a deconstructed familiar local tune appeared in whiffs and wafts. It took more than a few seconds to identify Di Tanjong Katong, which was never heard in its full glory with the music galloping like The Magnificent Seven theme to a raucous close.

More original in conception was Simon Kong's Izpirazione II, its three varied movements inspired by local fruits – Durian, Rambutan and Tarap – and taking the form of a prelude, scherzo and finale. Winds and percussion coloured the music's pungent aroma, joined by the musicians' synchronised clapping and stamping of feet as the suite drew to a colourful end.

There were two concertante works that offered very different aspects of solo string prowess. The first was Wang Dan Hong's Amannisha, named after the 15th century Uyghur singer-dancer who defined the muqam musical tradition of Central Asia. Conducted by SCO Resident Conductor Quek Ling Kiong, Chinese erhu soloist Lu Yiwen's spectacular showing began with gentle musings in the upper registers before getting earthy in a vigourous and rhapsodic dance that rocked the hall to its rafters.

Lu's immaculate deportment contrasted with the free-and-easy improvisations of former Singapore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Alexander Souptel in Phoon Yew Tien's Gypsy Rhapsody. This medley included Monti's Csardas, Enesco's First Romanian Rhapsody and variations on the Russian song Ochi Chornye (Dark Eyes) in a riotous mash-up. Souptel was his usual irrepressible self, cavorting on stage with the connivance of conductor Yeh Tsung, including a cheeky send-up to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto for good measure.

Not to be outdone, the three conductors did their own solos in the world premiere of Journey Around Singapore by SCO Composer-in-Residence Eric Watson. Hoping to catch Yeh on piano, Quek tackling percussion and Gay playing the erhu, while taking turns to conduct? Here was the piece, destined to be a National Day Parade hit.

A musical travelogue in all but name, the work employed popular tunes representing four compass points: Sentosa Isle (South), Di Tanjong Katong (East), Voices From The Heart (West), the Chinese classic Horse-Racing and Rossini's William Tell Overture (North, specifically the Turf Club at Kranji) before closing with the calypso rhythm of Singapore Town.

That the concert was not to be taken too seriously was also underlined by the works that ended each half. Jiang Ying's Hot Melody from Southeast Asia was an Asian pastiche of all those Leroy Anderson “jazz” pieces, while Zhao Ji Ping's Celebration Overture was a spin-off from Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture with Chinese tunes. If you can't beat them, join them.


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (13 January 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 January 2017 with the title "20 years on, SSO under Shui Lan has come of age".

Twenty years seems like a short span in the life of an orchestra, or that of an orchestral conductor. The years have flown like a flash since January 1997, when Lan Shui conducted his inaugural concerts at Victoria Concert Hall as Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

SSO Chairman Goh Yew Lin saluted
Maestro Lan Shui in his short speech.

For his 20th anniversary gala, Shui chose to relive the same all-Beethoven programme that opened his tenure. For those fortunate (and old enough) to have attended those concerts, comparisons and contrasts make for interesting discussion. How has the SSO progressed, and how has Shui himself moved on from those heady early years?

The SSO is now a far better ensemble, with significant improvements in all sections. The players have matured as a whole, and weaker individuals have been replaced by superior instrumentalists. It was a gradual process but new benchmarks were recorded with each passing year.

The evidence was to be found in the Leonore Overture No.3, from its opening unison note, through its slow introduction which built purposefully to the exhilarating Allegro. Sounding more polished and striding with greater confidence, a feverish climax was reached with David Smith's excellent offstage trumpet solo, before a totally convincing conclusion.

In Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto in G major, the orchestra sensitively partnered the American Nicholas Angelich, a man-mountain of a pianist. His was a big-boned performance, projecting well above the throng, and without the jitteriness of the 1997 soloist Seow Yit Kin. The give-and-take partnership was most apparent in the brief slow movement, poetically described as “Orpheus taming the Furies”.

Brusque unison strings were pitted against soothing piano chords here, but the effect was a miracle of transparency, constituting the highlight of the performance. The finale that followed without break was a joyous romp from start to end, and the applause prompted Angelich to offer the only non-Beethoven music of the evening: the first piece of Schumann's Scenes From Childhood.

The concert's second half was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, taken at the same breakneck speed as in 1997. Then, sleek and lithe readings of the German's symphonies were a relative rarity, sounding almost alien alongside traditional and more stolid interpretations. Today, Shui's approach is no longer considered radical. The new normal still yielded a thrilling performance, with the familiar first movement (Fate knocking on the door) setting the tone.

Trimmed of all fat, the Allegro con brio was a model of tautness and economy, with neither agogic pauses nor extraneous gestures. Similarly there was no room for sentimentality in the 2nd movement, which flowed with an inner, quietly raging fire. The tricky 3rd movement was adroitly negotiated before launching into the glorious finale, an urgent journey from tragedy to triumph.

Clocking in at a few seconds over 30 minutes, this felt like the swiftest and slickest Beethoven Fifth ever. Through its turbulent course, it was however never made to feel over-hurried or hectic. Some may disagree with this reading, but the spontaneous standing ovation and prolonged applause suggests that for most, Maestro Lan Shui and his band have indeed come of age.     

Saturday, 14 January 2017

THE TROUT / NAFA Music Faculty / Review

Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Music Faculty
Lee Foundation Theatre
Thursday (12 January 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 January 2017 with the title "Chamber music with lots of heart".

Chamber music is the most pleasurable activity for musicians and listeners alike. Originating from works written for royal court musicians, this later evolved into hausmusik (house music), played by members of 19th century middle-class households for their own entertainment. A collegial spirit exists in chamber music performance, hopefully allied by excellent techniques and refined tastes.

There were strong doses of all that in this concert featuring faculty of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Music Department. It opened with 20th century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's Trio D'Anches for woodwinds, written during the dark years of the Second World War. Far from being a sombre work, oboist Joost Flach, clarinettist Tang Xiao Ping and bassoonist Aw Yong Tian gave a lively and ebullient reading.

There were dissonances aplenty, and a spicy brand of humour ran through its ten minutes. The fast outer movements were tautly delivered with pin-point cues and accents, contrasted with a slow and doleful central movement, housing a canon where the oboe carried its tune. A dance-like finale with a witty end completed a fine reading.

Further contrasts came in the four-movement Horn Trio by Johannes Brahms, a well-known but not often performed work here. Its paucity is due to a lack of willing French horn players and a strenuously acrobatic piano part. Thankfully hornist Marc-Antoine Robillard was a total natural. Shaping the instrument's singing lines and possessing accurate intonation are often taken for granted.

Pianist Nicholas Ong's role was jumping through musical hoops, especially in the fast 2nd and 4th movements, accomplished with no little confidence. Violinist Foo Say Ming completed the threesome, which galloped through the “hunting-call” finale with a fearless panache. Anything slower would have been lead-footed, so their natural impulses were to go for broke. This was very well received by a noisy audience which had far too many fidgety children for its own good.

Too many children behaving poorly and treating
Lee Foundation Theatre like their private playground.
Their parents should be sent for re-education.
Photo taken during the intermission.

Foo was joined in the second half by violist Janice Tsai, cellist Lin Juan, bassist Wang Xu and pianist Lena Ching for Franz Schubert's popular Piano Quintet in A major, nicknamed the Trout Quintet. The performance was by no means note-perfect, but it possessed that pre-requisite of chamber music: lots of heart.

A smart and brisk pace rightly dictated the 1st movement, helmed by Ching's incisive playing that was anything but mechanical. There were lots of moments to heave a breath and savour the scents, and Ching was always alert to her partner's notes and nuances. The alternating fast and slow movements were contrasted to good effect; the 2nd movement's congenial indolence found a foil in the punchy rhythms of the 3rd and 5th movements.

The work's heart was the 4th movement, based on Schubert's lied Die Forelle (The Trout, hence the concert's title), which unfolded beautifully with each variation. Here the heart throbbed, and the warmth of camaraderie filled the hall with a glowing presence. That was, simply, the true essence of chamber music.   

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, January 2017)

GE GAN-RU Shanghai Reminiscences
Royal Scottish National Orchestra 
Naxos 8.570609 / ****1/2

Ge Gan-Ru (born 1954), a native of Shanghai and now resident of New York, has been described as China's first avant-garde composer. 

There is however little avant-garde about his vast programmatic symphony Shanghai Reminiscences, premiered by the Shanghai Philharmonic in 2009 to mark the People's Republic of China’s 60th anniversary. In two parts, My Childhood and Cultural Revolution, it is completely tonal and unfolds like a movie soundtrack based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the composer’s life.

Amid the quotes of old Chinese melodies heard in his youth and the sounds of temple bells and taxi horns, a solo violin played by Maya Iwabuchi represents the composer as he makes his journey to the West and an eventual return back home. 

In Revolutionary March, the rampage by the Red Guards resembles a manic and minor key version of the Disney tune It's A Small World After All. Tagged on is Ge's Butterfly Overture, a sanguine tribute to Ge’s teacher Chen Gang, who was one half of the composing team responsible for the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto

The performances by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's Music Director Tsung Yeh (himself of Shanghainese  origin), are vividly recorded. 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

MUSIC FOR A SUMMER DAY / Nicholas Loh, Shane Thio, Sng Yiang Shan & Eugene Toh / Review

Nicholas Loh & Shane Thio, Pianos
Sng Yiang Shan & Eugene Toh, Percussion
Lee Foundation Theatre
Thursday (5 January 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 January 2017 with the title "Beauty amid chaos".

The piano is a percussion instrument because it makes music when metal wires are struck by hammers. It is in fact the most highly-evolved of all percussion as it can be made to sing or sound like an orchestra. This innovative and very engaging concert of 20th century music for piano and percussion proved that, and some more.

Its first half presented American avant-garde composer George Crumb's Music For A Summer Evening (1974), also known as Makrokosmos III, a reference to Hungarian composer Bela Bartok's Mikrokosmos for piano. Its five movements showcased the pianos – amplified and with their lids removed – played in every conceivable manner possible alongside a battery of percussion.

Crumb's enduring trademark was getting the pianists to play directly on the piano's strings, either by plucking, scraping, striking or “preparing” with foreign objects, thus not limiting its scope to 88 depressed keys. The effect was at once mystical and ethereal with an array of tinkling, metallic bell sounds, alternating with loud and violent crashes when the score demands for it.

At certain points, pianist Nicholas Loh had to drop a crotale (a small metal cymbal) heavily onto the strings, or slide a stick over the gourd-like guiro while letting its sound reflect against the strings. Percussionists Sng Yiang Shan and Eugene Toh were themselves busy with their “kitchen” department, which included shaking a large metal sheet, rattling a flexatone, sliding bows on cymbals and non-percussive activity like vocalising, playing a recorder and blowing on slide whistles. Everything save the kitchen sink.

All this seems to suggest a work of anarchic disorder and total chaos, but reality was something else. Well-structured and economically choreographed, there were many instances of transcending beauty eloquently expressed, including Messiaen-like birdcalls, and in the final movement Music Of The Starry Night, a Bachian chorale that echoed through to the work's serene and quiet end.

The second half was devoted to Bartok's masterpiece Sonata For Two Pianos & Percussion (1937), considered the “grandfather” of all piano-percussion works. Its three movements seemed comparatively straight forward and even conservative, but more than made up with its sheer density of themes and textures.      
It mysterious opening was very well-judged with Toh's timpani slide and low piano octaves from Shane Thio, one of two pianists in its Singapore premiere over 20 years ago. The pace gathered and sonorities piled up in counterpoint for the 1st movement's virile main theme. Despite the music's percussiveness which led up to the climactic syncopated fugue, there was no shaking off the notion of Bachian influence.

What about the middle movement's “night music”, comprising ostinato figures and incisive interjections? Resembling the scurrying nocturnal world of birds and insects, were these also not heard in earlier music?  Loud applause and cheers greeted the conclusion of the Hungarian folk dance-influenced finale for the performers' fastidious efforts, but credit also goes to the symmetry of excellent programming by bringing Bartok and Crumb together.