Monday, 23 January 2017

WEST SIDE STORY / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (21 January 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 January 2017 with the title "Exhilarating Americana ride".

Just one day after the inauguration of a new American president, there was a Stars and Stripes theme to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's concert led by Associate Conductor Joshua Tan. Even the Singaporean composer Zechariah Goh's Blossoms, receiving its World Premiere, was American-influenced. An alumnus of the University of Kansas, his two-movement work supposedly followed the progress of the national orchestra from its inception to present prominence.

Odyssey, its impressionist first part introduced a two-note motif with the interval of a falling minor third, and there was an extended cello solo from Principal Ng Pei-Sian serving as development. This was followed by the fast-paced Ecstasy, using an inversion of the earlier motif as a kind of retort. Its jazzy dynamism, with flying pizzicatos and a riff-like clarinet solo from Li Xin, was reminiscent of Bernstein but tinged with a local flavour.

An outstanding stand-alone piece, it also dovetailed perfectly into the general programme. What followed was John Adams' Violin Concerto (1993) with Singaporean violinist Kam Ning as the exuberant soloist. Coincidentally, the first two notes of her entry were almost identical to the two-note motif of the preceding work. According to Goh, it was a case of pure serendipity, and the path soon diverged with Kam's extremely taxing solo part taking off into a different orbit.

Almost improvisatory in feel, her violin soared above the fast chugging built upon a rhythmic ostinato, and this ever-evolving notion of recreating variations continued into the central slow movement's Chaconne entitled Body Through Which The Dream Flows. How she sustained interest through its langorous and somnolent path was a feat, which meant in compensation the final Toccare had to be a hell-for-leather romp.

Supported by scintillating strings, hyperactive electronic keyboards and a timpanist working overtime, its feverish pace trumped everything that had come before for a fast and furious finish. It was more Americana for Kam's encore, where she was thrillingly partnered by cellist Ng in Edgar Meyer's bluegrass hit Limerock.

The second half belonged to Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which was conducted by Tan from memory. This score orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal includes most of the musical's dance numbers and some songs but not performed in sequence. As with much of the earlier music, the audience was brought on an enthralling ride, which included the snapping of fingers, a police whistle, the obligatory fugue and in the rumbling Mambo, two shouts of “Mambo!”.

Hitherto lukewarm in previous attempts, the orchestra did put more effort this time in its vocalisations. It would be in the songs Somewhere and I Have A Love, now wordless, where the music itself would have the greatest traction.

The concert had a neat built-in encore, Adams' Short Ride In A Fast Machine, an extended orchestral fanfare that luxuriated in his fast minimalism, building in pace and revving away to some distant checkered flag. It was all over in four minutes. Catch your breath, and be left in the dust to smell the fumes. 

RACHMANINOFF 3 / Orchestra of the Music Makers / Review

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (20 January 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 January 2017 with the title "A night of guilty pleasures".

If listeners were asked which classical composers were sources of their most guilty pleasures, chances are Sergei Rachmaninoff and Camille Saint-Saëns would crop up. Both the Russian and Frenchman wrote some of the classical repertoire's most unabashedly tuneful scores, the sort music snobs (particularly lovers of Bach and Schoenberg) turn up their noses to.

There was a heavy dose of Rachmaninoff and Saint-Saëns in the Orchestra of the Music Makers' latest concert, directed by young conductor Seow Yibin. First heard were World Premieres of four Rachmaninoff piano Préludes, in orchestrations by three young composers. Alexander Oon was responsible for two of these, Op.32 No.3 and Op.23 No.5, with martial character transformed into something more festive and dancelike.

Darren Sng's take on the lugubrious Op.23 No.1 deftly incorporated clarinet, oboe and flute solos, taking on an impressionist hue. Phoon Yu's vision of Op.23 No.3 was gavotte-like, cleverly utilising strings and woodwinds, even giving concertmaster Chan Yoong Han's violin an exquisite solo. These imaginative efforts follow in the illustrious tradition of Respighi and Stokowski in transcribing Rachmaninoff.

Rachmaninoff's mighty Third Piano Concerto was next, with 18-year-old former child prodigy Tengku Irfan, previously described in these pages as the “Malaysian Mozart”, as soloist. To say that the Juilliard undergraduate conquered and vanquished the “Everest of piano concertos” would be mere understatement.

Beginning quietly and steadily, the performance grew in character and stature over its rapturous journey of over 40 minutes, Without any hint of narcissicism or self-indulgence, his apparent coolness while generating white heat in playing must be the most enviable trait in this profession.

The massive 1st movement cadenza, the Adagio's climax and skittish waltz, and the finale's mercurial free-wheeling were among moments to savour. A standing ovation greeted this outing, which stands proudly alongside the work's best performances by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (with pianists Sergio Tiempo and Alexei Volodin) in recent years.

Orchestra and conductor played a major part in its success, and the good work continued in Saint-Saens' Third Symphony, also known as the “Organ Symphony”. Hushed strings and an opening oboe solo set a mood of mystique before escalating to the movement proper's nervous tension. Flexibility of ensemble ensured that the work's ebbs and flows was kept on a heightened edge.

Joanna Paul's organ entry in the slow movement was memorable for its subtlety. Her part here was mainly to provide a bed of soft harmonies over which the tender music floated. The big moment came in the dramatic finale, and her huge striding chords did not disappoint. There was a brief stretch when both orchestra and soloist threatened to go off the rails, but cools heads prevailed for that most glorious and reassuring of C major chords to close.

As an encore, the orchestra conjured a somewhat belated tribute to actress Carrie Fisher, with Princess Leia's Theme from John Williams' Star Wars soundtrack. That was another guilty pleasure few would regret.  

Pianist Tengku Irfan with
OMM Music Director Chan Tze Law.

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 with the title "Beauty of Bach unveiled".

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.