Monday, 16 March 2020

THE GENTEEL HORN OF MR HAN / Singapore Sy,phony Orchestra / Review



THE GENTEEL HORN OF MR HAN
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (13 March 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 March 2020 with the title "Awe-inspiring romp as SSO French-hornist says goodbye".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has reached an age when long-serving musicians have begun to retire. Earlier this year, it bade farewell to veteran Leader, violinist Lynnette Seah. This evening, Principal French hornist Han Chang Chou, popularly known as Han Xiao Guang, said goodbye. Of his 41 years as a professional musician, 33 were spent with the SSO.


In August, he returns to his homeland China to teach at the Tianjin Juilliard School. His parting gift was a performance of Mozart’s Second Horn Concerto, ironically receiving its belated SSO premiere. Perhaps that speaks of the orchestra’s relative neglect of Classical era repertoire, but its redress was an invigorating outing with Han firmly in control.


Just last week, he confidently blew away the treacherously exposed repeated solo horn passages in Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. This evening revealed a more sensitive side to his virtuosity, and that sonority that spelt mellow nobility. Eschewing outward display for its own sake, he was a figure of unwavering steadfastness and unflappable calm.

In the aria-like slow movement, his seamless singing tone reminded that much of Mozart’s lyricism was inspired by opera. In the Rondo finale, close sibling to that of the Fourth Horn Concerto, his agility to jump through assorted musical hoops proved to be a most enjoyable romp. An awe-inspiring one too, judging by the hearty applause that greeted its end.

Judging by the smiles, Mr Han
is well-loved by the orchestra.

The Mozart was sandwiched between two contrasted suites inspired by Moliere’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman), both local premieres by chamber-sized forces conducted by Darrell Ang. This was inspired programming for the 75-minute concert which had no intermission.

Opening was the Overture and Dances from Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lully’s accompanying music of 1670. Here was actual baroque music but performed on modern instruments in Ang’s own edition. The Overture was a French overture, a form comprising a syncopated opening section leading into a fugue.

Note the presence of the harpsichord and theorbo.

The music was crisply articulated with three dances that followed courtly and charming. The Turkish  influences (then trending in Western Europe) were graced by a small battery of percussion, and concessions to authenticity were provided by Shane Thio’s harpsichord and Christopher Clarke’s theorbo (an antique long-necked lute).   

Richard Strauss’ Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite from 1920 concluded the concert. Here was an example of neoclassicism, where modern composers relived old forms and styles with contemporary means. Its nine short movements were tuneful and tasteful, mostly accomplished by small groups of instruments, and often festooned with solo flourishes.   

Returning as guest concertmaster, Lynnette Seah and her violin worked tirelessly, while Jon Paul Dante’s trumpet added gloss to the showy movements. Shane Thio now commanded the piano as the music danced to a more modern beat. By the final movement, The Dinner, tutti forces resounded like one of Strauss’ classic scores, Don Juan or Don Quixote. Such is the magic of chamber-sized orchestras.

Judging by the smiles, Darrell Ang
and the orchestra had a good time!

Monday, 9 March 2020

PHILIPPE QUINT: THE RED VIOLIN / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review



PHILIPPE QUINT: THE RED VIOLIN
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (5 March 2020)

This review was published in Bachtrack on 9 March 2020 with the title "Litton, Quint and the Singapore Symphony provide light at the end of the tunnel".

The Covid-19 virus crisis has hit the world hard, and Singapore is short of going into complete shutdown. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has, however, bravely continued its subscription concerts, bringing semblance of normality and much-needed cheer to the beleaguered city-state. Healthcare and public transport workers were granted free admission to this concert of 20th century music.

Led by SSO Principal Guest Conductor Andrew Litton, the evening opened with the high energy of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, the 1956 operetta based on Voltaire’s satirical novella. Filled with Rossinian wit, champagne bubbles fizzed and sparks flew in its brief duration, bringing a smile to even the most jaded soul. It was simply the best start in the best of all possible worlds.

Smile turned into frown for John Corigliano’s The Red Violin, the four-movement violin concerto crafted from music for the 1997 movie directed by Francois Girard. Tragedy and tribulation follows the three-hundred-year journey of the violin varnished with blood from the luthier’s late wife Anna. Anna’s theme, wistful and melancholic, appears in the opening Chaconne and returns like an apparition in the ensuing three movements.


The grim introduction, carried by growling brass and bassoon, was gripping in intensity, heralding Russia-born American violinist Philippe Quint’s entry. The virtuosic solo part, highly characterised and fantasy-driven, found a perfect soulmate in Quint’s artistry. The 17-minute-long Chaconne (often performed as a stand-alone concert piece), while not strictly a baroque chaconne, was just the vehicle of moving pathos. The music was dirge-like in parts and escalated exorably to an explosive finish, representing the cruel hand of Fate and ultimately Death.

Quint revelled in ethereal and otherworldly pianissimo effects of the mercurial Scherzo, while some lyrical respite was provided by warm ensemble strings in the slow third movement. Through all of this, the spectre of Anna’s theme hovered ominously, continuing into the breakneck Accelerando finale. This was a hell-for-leather chase between violin and orchestra to its violently percussive close. Quint’s 1708 “Ruby” Stradivarius had become the living embodiment of the titular red violin in this ultimately depressing work. His encore was something else, a perfectly voiced take on Charlie Chaplin’s most popular melody, Smile from the movie Modern Times.  

It was back to darkness with a commanding performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony by the SSO. It was after the death of Stalin when this darkest of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies saw light of day. From subterranean rumbles by low strings in the first movement, Litton coaxed from the orchestra one great arch of sound. The mysterious opening was broken by the lone voice of Ma Yue’s clarinet solo. Further solos from flautist Jin Ta, bassoonist Christoph Wichert and oboist Rachel Walker helped define its progression to a mighty climax, culminating with deafening brass and percussion.


Soon after the movement closed with just two piccolos, the second movement’s juggernaut was unleashed. This was a four-minute-long portrait of Stalinist malevolance and pure evil, its savagery heightened by Jonathan Fox’s snare drum. The third movement’s autobiographical agenda was underlined by the DSCH motif (D, E flat, C, B natural, spelling the composer’s initials in German), later insistently bandied about in a demented waltz. This was countered by another repeated motif (representing a sometime love interest) from Han Chang Chou’s French horn.

The apparent tug-of-war would resolve in the finale, which came like light at the end of a tunnel. This was a roller-coaster of mood and emotion, first reliving the opening movement’s doom and gloom, and later lapsing into actual satire and comedy. The tongue-in-cheek was resolutely defended, with pin-point and precise timing of punch lines, firmly driven by conductor Litton’s mini leaps into the air. The cheer that greeted its close was noisy and tumultuous. Trust Shostakovich (and music itself) to wangle out from a difficult situation some wry smiles.     

Star Rating: *****

This review was reproduced here with the kind permission of Bachtrack. Photographs by the kind permission of Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, 17 February 2020

ROMANTIC SCHUMANN / KUN WOO PAIK Piano Recital / Review



ROMANTIC SCHUMANN
KUN-WOO PAIK Piano Recital
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (14 February 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 February 2020 with the title "Schumann afresh".

There has been no composer with a more tumultuous life than Robert Schumann (1810-1856). The epithet Romantic wholly applies to the German, whose love life, trials and tribulations was often stranger than fiction. That was the basis for celebrated Korean pianist Kun-Woo Paik’s all-Schumann recital, fortuitously held on what today’s romantics know as Valentine’s Day.

Even the fear of Covid-19 virus transmission did not deter a sizeable audience (including many Koreans) from witnessing Paik’s marvellous two-hour long show which was substantially expanded from its original programme. The selection encompassed very early to very late works, familiar pieces and rarities, from the technically simple to ferociously virtuosic, with a multitude of nuances captured within.


Schumann’s very first opus was Abegg Variations (Op.1), based on the five notes in the name of an early romantic interest. Encumbered with the fussy filigree which obsessed early Romantic composers, Paik easily overcame relentless note-churning without losing the thrust of its melodic interest. Equally note-laden was his Toccata (Op.7), a notorious finger-twister which could have easily descended into vacuous machine-gun rapid fire. Again, his prodigious fingers were fully in service of the music.  

Between the barnstorming were five Album Leaves from Bunte Blätter (Colourful Leaves, Op.99), character pieces traversing varied moods and shades of disposition. The first, which famously became the theme for Brahms’ Schumann Variations, was a study of calm and melancholy. Turbulence, geniality and pensivity followed before the set closed with hymn-like lyricism.

By now, one would have discerned that Schumann was a miniaturist non pareil, and the entire recital consisted of suites with multiple short movements. Waldeszenen (Forest Scenes, Op.82) comprised nine such pieces, exploring a world of woodland rusticity and mysticism. It was the latter that found most traction in Verrufene Stelle (Haunted Place) and Vogel Als Prophet (The Prophet Bird), slow numbers which were quietly haunting.


The two most frequently-heard works were Arabeske (Op.18) and Papillons (Op.2), which can often be tainted with over-familiarity. Not so, in Paik’s case. With multiple and quixotic shifts in dynamics and mood in both, surprises may be expected in each and every turn. These he negotiated with a sense of wonder and fantasy, such that the music always sounded fresh and newly minted.

This sense of discovery applied to the least familiar works, Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces, Op.111) and Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn, Op.133), conceived near the close of Schumann’s tragic life which ended in an insane asylum. The former were championed in concert by the great Vladimir Horowitz during his late years, and Paik’s view was every bit as vivid.


The latter are elusive and cryptic, but he unlocked their secrets through a near-seamless emotional arc spanning all possible cerebral and visceral experiences. His encore was a continuation of this poetic and lyrical bent: the Aria slow movement from Schumann’s First Sonata (Op.11), dedicated to his beloved Clara, whom he later married. Such is the measure of a true artist.  


Monday, 10 February 2020

UNSPOKEN MELODIES: SILENT FILM CLASSICS IN CONCERT / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review



UNSPOKEN MELODIES:
SILENT FILM CLASSICS IN CONCERT
Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (8 February 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 February 2020 with the title "Chinese instruments meet old black and white Western films".

Following the success of Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s concert accompanying The Goddess (starring Ruan Lingyu) at the 2014 Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts, the same formula was applied to four Hollywood silent classics from 1910 to 1923. The team of SCO Composer-in-Residence Law Wai Lun and his Hong Kong-based nephew Lincoln Lo returned to craft original scores, which were performed under the baton of Yeh Tsung.

The idea of Chinese instrumentation accompanying a Western film fortunately produced no jarring discrepancies between visual and aural experiences. Although the music could have easily been performed by a western symphony orchestra, the overall effect was one of seamlessness through its almost 90-minute duration.      

The concert opened with a short and lively Overture encapsulating the legacy of silent movies. Footage from period cinema (both Western and Asian) were included, as well as scenes from 1920-30s Singapore obtained from British Pathe and Penn Museum archives.

There is a period charm to the four black and white moving pictures, even if plotlines were simplistic, hopelessly naive and devoid of nuances between black and white (representing vice and virtue respectively). The only objection would be the odious racial stereotypes commonplace a century ago, such as portraying orientals and blacks as lackeys, or gypsies as plain evil. Of course there would be a certain tramp to save the day.   


Charlie Chaplin starred in two of the movies, The Adventurer (1917) and The Vagabond (1916), which opened and closed the show. But how differently these were treated. The former revelled in   slapstick and farcical Keystone Cops-like chases, with a jazzy, dancehall-music filled score which induced the most titters and laughs from the audience.


The latter was a romance, where boy saves girl from slavery, with tender moments involving piano and low strings, and a big melody to cap a climax. Did one detect a faint whiff of Nino Rota’s Romeo and Juliet theme, even when Tchaikovsky’s would have been the more appropriate?  


Quite different was Frankenstein (1910) starring Augustus Phillips, supposedly a thriller inspired by the Gothic horror novella. The music became more dramatic, with pitched percussion and piano reliving haunted house scary effects while weepy erhus added a further layer of suspense. Quite hilariously, the monster came across as almost loveable, like some overgrown house pet.


Buster Keaton was the hero in Rome from The Three Ages (1923), its centrepiece being a “race-to-the death” within a Coliseum-like arena. For the momentous occasion, loud martial music with vocalisations from the musicians filled the air, in the showdown between the villain’s horse-drawn chariot and Keaton’s dog-sled. Guess which one won.

Even if the movies’ content had little to do with Chinese culture, SCO’s contribution to Esplanade’s Chinese-themed festival was still a significant one. To showcase Chinese instruments as a versatile force, capable of transcending cultural barriers, was the name of the game. 


Tuesday, 4 February 2020

FIREBIRD - PIANO SENSATION / TONY YIKE YANG Piano Recital / Review




FIREBIRD - PIANO SENSATION
Tony Yike Yang Piano Recital
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (2 February 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 February 2020 with the title "Firebird takes flight on 88 keys".

Esplanade’s Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts has presented Chinese pianists in solo recitals over the years, including Chen Sa, Chen Jie (both China) and Tiffany Poon (Hong Kong), the last of whom garnered a sellout last year. This year’s offering was prize-winning Canadian-Chinese pianist Tong Yike Yang, a Toronto resident who is now pursuing dual-degrees in economics and music in Harvard University and New England Conservatory respectively.


Quite unusually, his recital began with the Eighth Novelette (Op.21 No.8) of Schumann, a short piece with a profusion of ideas that became almost difficult to follow. Yang exuded much passion and lyricism while making sense of its narrative flow.

More familiar was Chopin’s Third Sonata in B minor (Op.58), a warhorse in four movements.  Again, solid technique was allied to good musical taste as he negotiated digital complexities of the first two movements well. Ironically it was in the technically less demanding slow movement when things became unstuck.


For all of Esplanade’s strenuous warnings against unauthorised photography, the arts centre had to employ an official photographer who failed to silence his digital camera. Thus the quietest bits of the Largo was subjected to incessant pings and clicks as he snapped away with gusto. Whether these distracted Yang and caused him to falter was moot, but after that, the hitherto immaculate playing was no more.

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (Op.27 No.2) was not supposed to be the German’s most difficult work, but Yang’s effort made heavy weather of it. Whatever mystery that the opening movement (reminding some poet of moonlight over Lake Lucerne) evoked evaporated like the mist, the dance-like middle movement sounded prosaic, while there was a near collapse in the tempestuous finale.


The only concession to Chinese music came in five selections from Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolour. These short movements included dances and folk music much in the matter of Bartok’s idiomatic piano music. These were performed, wisely, with a score at hand and the vigorous celebratory chords in the final piece, Sunrain, set the stage well for Yang’s final showdown.

In Italian pianist Guido Agosti’s fearsome transcription of three movements from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Yang was able to flex all kinds of musculature to make the orchestral piece come alive on 88 keys. This he succeeded with stunning aplomb, with the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei sweeping the keyboard and taking no prisoners. The bell-like sonorities of the Finale also came off with clangorous clarity.


Yang greeted the applause with short, quick bows and polished off the encore of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu like a young man in a hurry. He even had the chutzpah of improvising a glissando when a descending scale almost came off the rails. A hot-shot talent for sure, and he even has economics to fall back upon should he ever tire of the stage.

Photographs by the kind courtesy of Esplanade Theatres On The Bay.

Monday, 3 February 2020

ANOTHER PIANO RECITAL NOT TO BE MISSED: KUN WOO PAIK PLAYS SCHUMANN on 14 February 2020



Haven't decided what to do on Valentine's Day? Here's a great idea: spend a Romantic evening with a loved one in the company of world-renowned Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik as he performs the music of Robert Schumann.

ROMANTIC SCHUMANN
KUN WOO PAIK Piano Recital
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday 14 February 2020, at 7.30 pm
Tickets available at SISTIC:
https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/romantic0120
(click on the link above)

His programme:

ABEGG Variations, Op.1
Bunte Blätter, Op.99
Toccata in C major, Op.7
Waldszenen, Op.82

This promises to be an evening of fantasy and rapture, brought to you by Altenburg Arts, the brains behind Martha Argerich and Yuja Wang's debut recitals in Singapore.


Wednesday, 22 January 2020

LOVE AND PASSION / Singapore Lyric Opera / Review



LOVE & PASSION
Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Recital Studio
Monday (20 January 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 January 2020 with the title "Excellent solos, outstanding duets and ensemble pieces".

Is there any opera that is not about love and passion? Thus the title of Singapore Lyric Opera’s (SLO) latest concert seemed as superfluous as it gets. Nevertheless, one got the idea with this lovely programme of arias, duets and trios from nine operas sung in Italian and French.

SLO has recently worked with young prize-winning singers and scholarship holders, but this evening was reserved for veterans and stalwarts of the company to strut their stuff. But where were the many singing students in various institutions, conspicuous for their absence in a sparsely filled hall? Surely they could learn something or two from the likes of soprano Nancy Yuen, tenor Israel Lozano, baritone Song Kee Chang and accompanying pianist Boris Kraljevic.


It was the Spaniard Lozano, former Placido Domingo protégé, who opened the show with Questa o quella from Verdi’s Rigoletto. In this lusty aria from opera’s most infamous womaniser, the Duke of Mantua, Lozano sounded and looked the part with impressive flourishes in high registers. His other arias were from Verdi’s La Traviata and Massenet’s Werther. The latter was the unforgettable Pourquoi me reveiller, where unrequited love in spring could only lead to suicide.  


Not overshadowed was the Korean Song, whose rich and mellow tone was well suited for a bel canto aria from Bellini’s I Puritani. His portrayal of the older Germont in Di Provenza il mar (from La Traviata) also tugged on the heartstrings, as did Nimico della patria from Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. While not exactly love songs, these were however tinged with longing and regret.


Yuen, also SLO’s Artistic Director, regrettably sang only one aria. However nobody can scale the heights of Vissi darte from Puccini’s Tosca as effortlessly as she does in her signature role. With the absence of programme notes or printed libretti, she and Lozano introduced their numbers with brief but helpful explanations.


Good as the solos were, the duets and ensemble pieces stole the show as all three singers exhibited excellent chemistry with their blended voices. Yuen and Lozano emoted in Signor ne principe (Rigoletto) and the poignant Parigi o cara (La Traviata), which was a tearjerker.  Lozano and Song relived two of opera’s greatest bromances in In un coupe (Puccini’s La Boheme) and the familiar Au fond du temple saint from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. And how the room shook.



Yuen and Song accounted for a duet in La Boheme and the most unexpected treat in Te souvient-il du lumineux voyage from Massenet’s Thaïs. This is none other than a glorious reprise of the famous Meditation, with the violin’s unforgettable melody replaced with soaring voices.


The highly enjoyable concert closed with a Three Tenors-styled medley of four Neapolitan songs: O Sole Mio, Non Ti Scordar di me, Torna a Surriento and Funiculi Funicula. Two encores in Santa Lucia and Leoncavallo’s La Mattinata brought down the house and raised a standing ovation.