Thursday, 31 July 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2014)

Deutsche Grammophon 479 1039 / ****1/2

It would seem like every young hot-shot pianist has to establish his or her credentials by cutting their teeth on Chopin’s 24 Études, long considered the ideal marriage between technical wizardry and musical poetry. The Polish-Canadian Jan Lisiecki, just 18 years old when he recorded both sets of studies last year, distinguishes himself as rather special talent in the crowded field of keyboard virtuosos. He displays a natural unforced facility in these unrelenting finger-twisters, and when the going gets tough, it is lyricism that shines through.

From the opening C major “Arpeggio” study (Op.10 No.1) to the torrents of crashing sea-waves of the final C minor etude (Op.25 No.12), one gets the sense of an artist fully in control of his faculties. The tricky filigree of the F major (Op.10 No.8), the ferocious runs of thirds in the G sharp minor (Op.25 No.6), or the octave cascades in the B minor (Op.25 No.10) hold little fears for this wunderkind. One however wishes he could have taken a little more time to savour the unfolding lament in the E flat minor number (Op.10 No.6), which  sounds hurried. This is a small quibble in an otherwise highly impressive showing from Lisiecki, a new name and one to note for the future.

Sao Paulo Symphony / LAN SHUI
BIS 1778 / ****1/2

The 20th century trumpet is an extraordinarily versatile instrument, equally at home with classical forms as well as jazz and contemporary music. Its powers of sustaining long notes and agility in articulation make it ideal for the blues idiom and extroverted pyrotechnics. These 20th century French trumpet concertos exploit those qualities, making for an entertaining listen. The two Trumpet Concertos by André Jolivet (1905-74) are already well-established. The First (1948, published as a Concertino) is influenced by Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, employing strings and piano like a modern concerto grosso.  The forces of the Second (1954) resemble those of a jazz band, offering a similar vibe as Milhaud’s Afro-centric ballet The Creation of the Earth.

The Trumpet Concerto of 1944 by Henri Tomasi (1901-71), a native Corsican, is more traditional in its acrobatic displays but the silvery strains of the moody blues are never far away. Less well known are the Robert Planel’s Concerto (1966) and Alfred Desenclos’s Incantation, Threnody & Dance (1953), which are highly tonal and totally engaging. Norwegian trumpeter Ole Edvard Antonsen is a virtuoso of the first rank, and he is well supported by the excellent Brazilian orchestra led by the Singapore Symphony’s music director Lan Shui. This interesting corner of the repertoire is well worth exploring.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

DIE FLEDERMAUS / New Opera Singapore / Review

New Opera Singapore
Victoria Theatre
Sunday (27 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 July 2014 with the title "Patricia Mok helps demystify opera".

Die Fledermaus is the title of Johann Strauss the Younger’s most popular operetta, one that has been translated to many languages and performed the world over. New Opera Singapore’s production was acted and sung completely in English, the practice of using the vernacular being widely accepted universally. Thus only a pedant would object to the non-use of the original German, or carp at the title not being the far less poetic The Bat.

Fledermaus in whatever language has to be a sparkling and good-humoured affair, and New Opera Singapore under its Korean-born founder Jeong Ae Ree delivered in heaps and some more. In its favoured tradition of updating the classics, the setting was modern-day yuppie Singapore, with Adele as a Pinoy domestic and numerous references to Korean and Japanese pop culture, all the rage here these days. The ice was immediately broken and the comedy flowed unabated.

The casting with New Opera regulars was excellent. Rosalinde was sung by two home-grown sopranos Teng Xiang Ting and Rebecca Li on separate evenings. Li was her usual feisty self but touched with a vulnerability that made her endearing. Opposite her, David Charles Tay as hubby Eisenstein (both above) gave a totally believable portrayal of smug duplicity, which made it all the more satisfying when hoisted on his own petard.

Young SOTA student Moira Loh’s Adele stole the show with her Leticia Bongnino accent and had two big arias to impress with, including the famous Laughing Song. Even tenor Shaun Lee’s hopelessly in love Alfred, spouting lines from various tenor arias, had much to recommend.

Three Korean singers were invited to helm main cast roles: booming bass-baritone Park Jun Hyeok as the aggrieved Falke, David Daehan Lee as prison governor Frank and alto Son Jung A in the trousers (cross-dressing) role as an implausibly Japanese Orlovsky. Their spoken and sung English was just more than adequate, and surtitles were a great help here.

The set design by Shin Ji-Won and Brian Leong was simple yet effective, but did the party at Club Fledermaus have to look like something out of Patpong rather than Gangnam or Mohamed Sultan? Kim Sook Young’s stage direction was breezily communicative, providing lots of laughs from the audience. The sequence of Eisenstein and Frank impersonating Japanese patrons by desperately reciting Japanese brand names and clichés was a scream.

The orchestra conducted by Chan Wei Shing supported the fast-moving action well, and the small chorus complete with a quartet of pole-dancers gave the Second Act an unusually sleazy feel. The practice of inserting arias and ballets during this segment was passed over for the non-credited appearance of Channel 8 television comedian Patricia Mok as a very sober Barbara, taking the place of non-singing and usually inebriated prison attendant Frosch.

Filling the gap between the Second and Third Acts, her soliloquy in a combination of Singlish and Mandarin was a tour de force of stand-up comedy, casting snooks on singers, actors, musicians and essentially the entire entertainment industry. Mok’s appearance summed up the production’s ethos, which is to demystify the air of elitism surrounding opera and making the genre approachable. New Opera Singapore has succeeded again, with good singing and acting, and not a dull minute in between.

All photos with the kind permission of New Opera Singapore.

Monday, 28 July 2014


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (26 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 July 2014

For the second time in three years, the biennial Steinway Asia Pacific Regional Finals for pianists under the age of 17 was hosted by Singapore. As with the event two years ago, this competition brought together some of the most talented young keyboard talents in East Asia region to vie for a residency in the Steinway Music Festival in Hamburg, Germany to be held later this year.

Each pianist had been judged on a 20-minute solo programme by an international jury earlier in the day, and the gala concert was a showcase of a sample of their prowess. Quite predictably, most of the eight finalists selected virtuosic music from Russia and Eastern Europe, almost guaranteed to strike awe in the hearts of listeners. At stake was a “Most Popular Pianist” prize, voted by a live and Internet audience by SMS in the manner of Singapore Idol.

On that count alone, Feng Yi Chen (Taiwan, 17 years old) should be lauded for selecting the first movement from Haydn’s Sonata No.25 in E flat major, the least showy work on display. His playing was crisp and light, full of nuances befitting the ebullient humour of the music. The other pianist who played non-Slavic music was Celestine Yoong (Malaysia, 13), whose fluency and clarity in two movements from Ravel’s La Tombeau De Couperin, the Prelude and Rigaudon, were a total delight.

The evening’s fare was opened spectacularly by Teofilia Onggowinoto (Indonesia, 14) with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.11. She brought out the cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer) effects very well, and went on a thrilling free-wheeling course to its outlandish end. Not to be outdone was Nicole Tay Wan Ni (Singapore, 12), also the youngest participant, who was totally polished and all smiles in Glinka’s transcription of Alyabiev’s The Nightingale, a set of florid variations on a Russian folksong.

Three pianists chose to play pieces not in their competition repertoire. Nathan John Torento (Philippines, 15) illuminated Arensky’s Etude in C major with romantic insight even if he has yet to feel completely at home with it. Chae Won Kim (South Korea, 13) had the full measure of Tchaikovsky’s popular Dumka, confident and buoyant but retaining every bit of Russian melancholy and angst.

Kant Kosoltrakul (Thailand, 17) pulled off Arcadi Volodos’s manic transcription of Mozart’s Turkish Rondo with stunning aplomb, completely unfazed by its fiendish machinations. Do Hoang Linh Chi (Vietnam, 17) attired in a startling poppy red dress with spectacles to match gave, to these ears, the performance of the evening.

She had substituted a Beethoven sonata movement with Liszt’s Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli (Venice and Naples), a vertiginous swirling dance which was accorded a grandstanding treatment, so full of poise and Mediterranean colour that one imagined a seasoned veteran at play.

First prize was awarded to Korea’s Kim, with the petite Viet Do placing a close second. There was a tie for third prize, shared by Thailand’s Kant and Singapore’s Tay. Home advantage also saw Tay garner the audience prize, which was no big surprise. Awards and accolades ultimately mean little in a career musician’s long journey, but these provide a source of encouragement and affirmation for the young, one that will remind them of the hard work and sacrifices ahead.     

GALA: A BOWED AFFINITY / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (25 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 July 2014 with the title "Emotional tribute to erhu virtuoso".

This pair of concerts was supposed to have been legendary Chinese erhu virtuoso Min Hui Fen’s final orchestral engagement. Unfortunately she died from a cerebral haemorrhage on 12 May in Shanghai at the age of 69 years. What would have been a celebration of her artistry instead became a requiem and memorial.

Replacing her was one of her finest pupils Liu Guang Yu. Alongside Singapore Chinese Orchestra erhu principal Zhao Jian Hua, also a student of hers, and her son the conductor Liu Ju on the podium, this was to be more than a fitting tribute. Naturally concertante erhu works championed by Min were the order of the day, but there were lots more to be served.

Liu performed three erhu works, beginning with Hua Yan Jun’s well-known Reflections of the Moon on Erquan. His was the instrumental personification of the human voice, heaving a breath, whispering and then singing in this elegiac number that was the blind composer’s meditation on a moonlit landscape. The orchestration was light, sometimes just accompanied by a pipa, allowing the erhu’s plaint to shine through.

Min’s own arrangement of Aspiration of the Honghu People was a patriotic work, full of martial fervour but tinged with a sense of melancholy, before the inevitable rallying to arms against the bogeymen Japanese. By the end of both works, the emotional Liu who swayed and sashayed through the scores, was flushed with tears and perspiration. His ingenious little scherzo entitled Ants did much to relieve the angst. 

Zhao was assigned Yang Li Qing’s Song Of Sadness, another sob story based on The Wailing River, a melody used by Buddhist to square with the philosophy of “living as suffering”. Overwrought emotions ruled, but it was Zhao’s flowing cantabile that truly moved. As a pedagogue, the late-lamented Min truly left a legacy.

The balance of the concert was just as substantial, filled with mostly programmatic works. Opening the evening was the ancient tune The Moon High Above, originally for erhu solo, orchestrated by Peng Xiu Wen. The music was ruminative, evocative of nocturnal scenes before breaking into a quick dance and capped with a rousing ending.

Wang Chen Wei with veteran composer and
Cultural Medallion recipient Phoon Yew Tien.

Young Singaporean Wang Chen Wei’s Sisters’ Islands in its original guise for Chinese orchestra stood out of the pack as it used the Indonesian pelog scale in its melodies, which gave it a distinctive Nanyang flavour. Sumptuously orchestrated, the work also employed marimba, wind machine and a blown conch shell to depict the legend of the Singapore Straits.

Closing the evening was Xin Hu Guang’s Gada Meilin, an established battle classic originally scored for Western orchestra. The Chinese orchestration by Liu Wen Jin is no less evocative, especially the serene opening with xiao and dizi solos and the section of stampeding steeds down the Mongolian steppes. Slightly longer than Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the work nonetheless delivered with desired impact. An encore, the cheerful Hua Hao Yue Yuan (Beautiful Flowers, Round Moon) dispelled all gloom and lifted the spirits.

All photographs with the kind permission of Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

CD REVIEWS (The Straits Times, July 2014)

MAHLER Symphonies
The Philharmonia / New Philharmonia
EMI Classics 248398 2 (6 CDs) / *****

It was Gustav Mahler himself who wrote in 1907 a personal recommendation for the young Polish-Jewish pianist and conductor Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), who had presented his two-piano transcription of Mahler’s Second Symphony to the great Austrian composer himself. With the master’s imprimatur, Klemperer was to embark on an illustrious and often turbulent career that lasted almost 75 years. Regrettably he did not conduct or record all of the Mahler symphonies. This EMI Classics retrospective box-set captures just five symphonies in their full glory.

Klemperer’s takes on the Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) and The Song Of The Earth (with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and the late tenor Fritz Wunderlich), recorded between 1961 and 1966, are without doubt among the greatest recordings in the catalogue. The octogenarian’s recordings of the Ninth and Seventh Symphonies are also the slowest, running at 87 and a staggering 100 minutes respectively. How he sustains these leisurely to glacial tempos mostly without sounding stodgy (the exception being the finale of the Seventh) is a testament to his judgement, and how the London-based orchestra responds to his spell-binding direction. Throw in the genial Fourth Symphony (with the matchless soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) and several orchestrated Lieder (with Christa Ludwig), this is a set to truly treasure.   

SCHUBERT Complete Works
For Violin & Piano
Hyperion 67911/2 (2 CDs) / *****

From the master of German lieder Franz Schubert (1797-1828) comes this handy collection of music for violin and piano, blest with the same flowing lyricism that distinguished his songs. The violin sonatas are slender pieces modelled after Mozart. The first three (D.384, 385 and 408) were composed in 1816 and published as Sonatinas for piano and violin (note the piano’s designation of prominence), most probably aimed at the amateur music-making market. These are delightful pieces, full of melodic charm and congenial humour. Even when exhibiting some degree of pathos, these do not reach the level of angst in Beethoven’s sonatas.

In the single movement Rondo in B minor (D.895) and Fantasy in C major (D.934), there is greater leeway for virtuosic display. The latter is Schubert’s longest work for this medium, and also the best known. The 26-minute piece includes as its centrepiece a lovely set of variations on his lied Sei Mir Gegrusst! (I Greet You!). For good measure, Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova and French pianist Cedric Tiberghien also perform that song to close the set. Their interpretations are unmannered and highly musical, befitting the works’ humbler origins, and are a pleasurable listen form start to finish.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

SINGAPORE! A MUSICAL CELEBRATION III / Singapore Wind Symphony with Jeremy Monteiro and Friends / Review

Singapore Wind Symphony with
Jeremy Monteiro & Friends
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (20 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 July 2014 with the title "High times with a giant of jazz".

After Jeremy Monteiro had performed in May with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra on tour in three concerts, conductor Yeh Tsung introduced him to the Chinese audience as a Singaporean virtuoso. “Not Chinese, not Indian, not European but a full-blooded Singaporean,” were the choice words used. Truly there cannot be a greater tribute to one’s nationality to have been described in such terms.

This concert by the Singapore Wind Symphony is part of an on-going series conceived by conductor Adrian Tan celebrating Singaporean music. On show was Cultural Medallion recipient Monteiro, who is as prolific a composer as he is pianist. What constitutes a national style of jazz is still being defined, but it was Monteiro’s eclectic and international style, drawing from disparate inspirations, which put Singaporean jazz into the global spotlight.

It began with Overture In C - The Story of Singapore, a non-jazz number which featured Malay-styled drumming and the pomp of British pageantry for a short round-up of local history. Then the giant of jazz strode out with his rhythm section including drummer Tama Goh, bassist Brian Benson and guitarist Rick Smith.

Monteiro led from the piano with soloists Julian Chan on saxophone and flautist Rit Xu shining in Helvetica, a fast number with some unstated Swiss connection, and the swinging Blues For The Saxophone Club, reliving high times at the old jazz club on Cuppage Terrace. Thrillingly he brought out the stock-in-trade scintillating runs on his right hand, which still amaze given his sizeable girth and apparent laid-back demeanour.

In Brothers, Kenneth Lun’s flugelhorn sang a silvery blues, as the jazzmen paid tribute to the big band fraternity within the wind orchestra. Olympia was a heady marching tune Monteiro wrote for some imaginary Olympic Games topped with a brash and brassy bluster. The frenetic Orchard Road, co-written with Ernie Watts in a traffic jam, would not have sounded out of place in a Rio mardi gras.

The young arrangers of the concert reads like
a Who's Who of Singaporean music.

Another Time, Another Place was a slow sentimental piece with harp thrown in which Monteiro figured could have made great movie music had he been asked. Typically it gradually worked itself into a grandstanding climax. Local jazz singer Rani Singam joined in three songs, the first being Swing With Me, originally known as Strutting Down Sukhumvit but now dressed with a distinct Broadway accent. 

Young composer-arranger Chok Kerong was generously afforded the spotlight with two songs with Singam, the meditative Frailty and the livelier You’ll Never Have To Dance Alone (Samba No.1), which showed that the art of song-writing here continues to thrive.

The 90-minute concert closed with Monteiro’s Soliloquy, which culminated with a solo cadenza and a swipe into the innards of the piano, and the thoughtful National Day Parade favourite One People, One Nation, One Singapore. In a Freudian moment, conductor Adrian Tan addressed the man of the hour as Sir Jeremy Monteiro, and then added, “Duke Ellington is great, but can’t we play some Jeremy Monteiro once in a while?” He had just echoed the thoughts of many in the audience. 

Jeremy Monteiro signs off with a wave.

Monday, 21 July 2014

MUSICAL LANDSCAPES FOR ALL SEASONS / Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (19 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 July 2014 with the title "The future of Chinese orchestra is fine".

The Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra (SYCO) is the junior wing of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO), formed by young musicians from the age of 11 to 26. A national project of excellence, it serves as a feeder for the main orchestra besides playing an important role in furthering Chinese instrumental music among the young in Singapore.

Led by Quek Ling Kiong and Moses Gay, both conductors of the SCO, its annual concert was an impressive showcase of solo and ensemble virtuosity that bodes well for the future. The 2-hour long programme began with World Premiere of Liu Qing’s Puppet Show.

Ever the enthusiastic proselytiser, SCO Resident Conductor Quek introduced the important elements of the work, including plucked strings simulating percussion and bowed strings portraying the human aspects of the ancient art-form of puppetry. Concertmaster Huang Yiheng’s gaohu solo also accurately characterised the gingerly steps taken by a novice monk who takes a tumble in this vigorous and engaging piece of musical storytelling.

Leanne Ong Teck Lian was the Chinese language
narrator in Phoon's Chinese Music for All Seasons.

Phoon Yew Tien’s Chinese Music for All Seasons was an ideal vehicle to introduce a brief history of Chinese orchestral music. Within its short 15 minute span, the work covered Chinese music’s humble roots from homophonic and unison instrumental music, through simple ensemble groups to the complex symphonic organisation of the modern Chinese orchestra. In describing a rapidly metamorphosing genre, its colourful canvas included melodies like Sceneries of Wuxi, Coloured Clouds Chasing the Moon and Tune of the Bamboo Flute.

SCO Assistant Conductor-in-Residence Gay conducted three works highlighting different sections of the orchestra. Plucked strings – the pipa, liuqin, ruan and double bass – featured in a suite of three popular songs from Chinese Sights and Sounds by Bao Yuan Kai, a serenade for strings that resembled those Russian balalaika ensemble works of old.

Reflections of the Moon on Erquan by legendary blind erhu exponent Ah Bing brought out a beautiful svelte sonority from bowed huqin strings. It was a nice gesture of conductor Gay to highlight the contribution of young visually-impaired erhu player Stephanie Ow at the end of the piece. Charms of Xiangxi, by a committee of three composers Wang Zhi, Lin Zhen Gui and Yang Nai Lin, was an exuberant show of percussion prowess (below) and full orchestral forces.

To close, Quek returned to conduct Chen Ning-chi’s Romance of the Old Capital, a 1984 symphonic poem that recounted a traveller’s eventful journey on the Old Silk Road. Roy Yuen’s solo guzheng opened this rhapsodic work which took on an exotic melange of Central Asian themes before reaching a rowdy climax with a brassy chorus of suonas bursting forth (below).

Its quiet ending with the return of the guzheng heralded a tumultuous applause. The ending of Liu’s Puppet Show, this time punctuated with scored chanting, was delivered as an exuberant encore. The future of Chinese instrumental music in Singapore is in good hands.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2014)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Naxos 8.573188 / *****

Only one of Dmitri Shostakovich’s purely orchestral symphonies has not been performed in Singapore: the Fourth Symphony No.4 in C minor, arguably his greatest, and for good reason too. It plays for over an hour, calls for a massive orchestra with strings, winds, brass and percussion multiplied manifold, and is the epitome of shrillness and stridency. Completed in 1936, the symphony was immediately withdrawn following the scandal of his opera Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk, which was roundly criticised by Stalin himself. The content of the 3-movement symphony may be called to question for its extreme dissonance, raucous violence and in-your-face ironies. Its litany of mocking marches and grotesque dances are a barely-concealed criticism of contemporary Soviet society.

This performance in a highly successful recorded symphony cycle led by young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko does not stint on the music’s bleakness and bathos. The woodwinds, brass and percussion are particularly spectacular in spewing out the bile and vitriol that permeates the work from beginning to end. And when a seemingly triumphant C major apotheosis threatens to restore a semblance of sanity and faith, the symphony peters off to an enervating and whimpering close. This is perhaps music’s most eloquent portrayal of futility and despair, in a most vivid reading with no quarter given.    

Ondine 1230-2D (2 CDs) / ***1/2

This new recording by maverick American pianist Tzimon Barto brings together the great piano works inspired by Italian virtuoso violinist-composer Niccolo Paganini’s famous Caprice No.24 in A minor for unaccompanied violin. Itself a set of variations, the hair-raising caprice has sparked the imagination of composers over the year, who have added their own variations into the mix. Barto opens with Franz Liszt’s 6 Grand Etudes After Paganini, with Etude No.6 being a free transcription of the afore-mentioned caprice. Etude No.3 is, of course, the ubiquitous La Campanella. Barto’s seemingly effortless technique is beyond reproach but he takes plenty of liberties in tempos and dynamics. In Brahms’s fearsome set of Paganini Variations Op.35, that includes re-writing a variation or two.

For 20th century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations for two pianos, he plays both parts which are overdubbed to spectacular effect. The major disappointment is in Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, where Barto is partnered by the Schleswig Holstein Festival Orchestra conducted by his mentor Christoph Eschenbach. Here he cannot resist the temptation of pulling and stretching tempos out of shape. The famous 18th Variation, emotional climax of the work, sounds wilful and almost interminable in these hands. The double-CD set is priced at the cost of a single disc. This is manna for the curious and seekers of the unusual (and perverse).