Friday, 17 February 2017

DO NOT MISS: Singapore Debut Recital by Eminent Brazilian Pianist CRISTINA ORTIZ



Programme includes:

RAVEL Sonatine
CHOPIN Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58
BEETHOVEN Sonata in C sharp minor
  Op.27 No.2 "Moonlight"
VILLA-LOBOS A Lenda Do Caboclo
   Valsa da Dor, Festa no Sertao

Victoria Concert Hall at 7.30 pm
Sunday, 26 February 2017 
Tickets available at SISTIC

Cristina Ortiz is one of the most prominent of Brazilian pianists today. Winner of the 1969 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition as a teenager, she has gone on to play with the world's great orchestra and made many excellent recordings on the EMI, Decca, Collins Classics and Naxos labels. Her specialities are works of Romantic composers and the music of her homeland Brazil, particularly the piano pieces of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Do not miss this rare recital presented by Christine N Concerts.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

CD Review (February 2017)

RCA Red Seal  88985321742 (60 CDs) / ****1/2

The third collector's edition box-set of RCA Red Seal Living Stereo recordings dates from 1956 to 1966, and focuses mostly on solo recitals, chamber and choral music. 

With all the “big names” accounted for in the two preceding volumes, this 60-disc set highlights the debuts and early recordings of “rising names” including Bolivia-born violinist Jaime Laredo, American coloratura soprano Roberta Peters, the Juilliard Quartet, and late legends like American violinist Erick Friedman (a Heifetz student) and Poland-born pianist Andre Tchaikovsky. The listener is also introduced to French-Canadian violinist Liliane Garnier whose solo recital is a revelation.

Older and established names like violinist Henryk Szeryng, cellist Antonio Janigro, pianist Alexander Brailowsky, soprano Birgit Nilsson are also represented at the heights of their careers. With the thaw of Soviet-American relations, Russian greats Leonid Kogan, Galina Vishnevskaya and Daniil Shafran were also being recorded for their first times in the West. 

Not to be forgotten are two discs by the piano duo of Victor Babin and Vitya Vronsky in mostly Russian repertoire (their take on Rachmaninov’s two Suites is unforgettable), and the generically-named Festival Quartet (led by violinist Szymon Goldberg and includes violist William Primrise) in piano quartets by Brahms and Schumann.

Most of the discs play for about 40 minutes, corresponding to LPs of the day, but quality of performances rather than quantity is the key. The remastered sound is also more than acceptable for many hours of pleasurable listening.

Monday, 13 February 2017

WUXIA / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts
Esplanade Concert Hall
Satuday (11 February 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 February 2017 with the title "A trip down memory lane for wuxia fans".

Film music was on the table for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's contribution to this year's Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts organised by Esplanade. Conducted by Music Director Yeh Tsung, the orchestra delivered a huge dose of nostalgia to the mostly middle-aged audience that filled the hall to its rafters.

For many, the genre of Chinese period dramas with sword-fighting, kungfu postures and gravity-defying leaps came from the 1960s through early 80s, typically churned out in Hong Kong film studios. The celebration of this legacy began with Medley Of Television Dramas by the then-ubiquitous Joseph Koo, with the view of Victoria Harbour by night serving as a backdrop.

The familiar melodies rolled off easily, graced by short but pretty solos by Zhao Jian Hua (erhu) and Li Bao Shun (gaohu), but does the well-known Shanghai Beach from The Bund (one of Koo's most memorable themes) belong to this group?

More contemporary was the erhu concerto drawn from Tan Dun's Academy Award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon score for the movie starring Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. SCO member Tan Man Man was the elegant and sensitive soloist, but her reticence in exerting herself meant she was more often than not overwhelmed by the large looming orchestral forces.

Receiving a World Premiere was Hong Kong-based Lincoln Lo and former SCO Composer-in-Residence Law Wai Lun's score accompanying sword-fighting scenes from the 1967 classic wuxia movie One Armed Swordsman. The appearance of the iconic Shaw Brothers logo drew recognition and laughter from the audience, and the saga about chivalry, adversity, revenge and redemption got underway.

The music, with vigorous rhythms and lyricism backing sequences of action and romance, blended seamlessly with the happenings on screen, surprisingly violent (for the 1960s) for including severed arms and spilling of laughably fake blood. The audience was clearly enthused by their collective memories being jolted, and a final return of that Shaw Brothers icon.

Special guest of the evening was Hong Kong singer Johnny Yip, very popular in the 1970s, now in his seventies. He sang six songs including James Wong's Laughter From The Vast Sea, Michael Lai's Imperial Heroes and The Legendary Hero Fok, and three more by Joseph Koo. Clearly his amplified crooner's voice has seen better days, but his glittery silver-scaled and tinselled suits, and easy-going personality indicated he was still up for the job.

Besides singing in Cantonese, he also chatted effably in dialect with conductor Yeh and the audience, much to their approval. Proponents of the Speak Mandarin Campaign will voice their protest, but his authentic and sterling efforts were an exercise reclaiming a certain heritage, in turning back the clock and bringing back the old and beloved.   

As the audience clapped along to the encore, Yip singing Koo's Sweeping Through The Mountains And Rivers, there was a palpable feeling of belonging, and that all things were good again.

Photographs by Jack Yam, courtesy of Esplanade Theatres By The Bay.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, February 2017)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
PINCHAS ZUKERMAN, Violin & Conductor
Decca 478 9386 / *****

Lovers of string music should not miss this excellent album which brings together the best-loved string works of two English masters, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Edward Elgar (1857-1934). 

American violinist Pinchas Zukerman plays the role of both soloist and conductor. His svelte and sweet tone is best heard in Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, a single-movement violin concerto all but in name. Its use of modal themes relives the hallowed tradition of English folk music, continuing into the Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis, where three string choirs are employed to resonant effect. Here is a cathedral of sound, and a nod to the great English choral tradition.

Elgar is represented by his ubiquitous Salut D'Amour, once again with Zukerman doing the honours. The strings players of the London-based Royal Philharmonic are excellent in the three-movement Serenade For Strings, and shorter pieces Chanson De Matin, Chanson De Nuit and In Moonlight (with Zukerman now on viola), extracted from the tone poem In The South

This splendid album is completed by the virtuosic Introduction and Allegro, which highlights a string quartet amid a full body of strings. A feast of glorious strings beckons.   

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

NG PEI-SIAN AND NG PEI-JEE / Victoria Concert Hall Presents / Review

VCH Presents Series
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (3 February 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 February 2017 with the title "Lively performance by twin brothers".

A full-house audience packed Victoria Concert Hall on a drizzly evening to witness a rare recital for two cellos, by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's Principal Cellist Ng Pei-Sian and his identical twin Pei-Jee.

The brothers were born in Sydney, shared the same teachers and schools in Australia and United Kingdom, and won numerous prizes before their individual careers diverged. Presently, the elder sib Pei-Jee is Co-Principal at the London Philharmonic Orchestra and member of the Fournier Trio.

Beginning with French baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Barriere's Sonata in G major, the chemistry was as immediate as expected. Their voices blended as one, interchanging roles of playing melody and providing accompaniment as freely as breathing air. Although the work was brief, with a short central aria and swift finale with rapidly repeated notes, their breezy way with the music served as the perfect prelude.

Slightly more complex was Handel's Trio Sonata in G minor, its alternating slow and fast 4-movement form with Shane Thio on harpsichord. Their interplay with give-and-take in the busy counterpoint of the fast movements was exemplary, with a show of deeper emotions in the slower preceding movements.

On either side of Handel were two unaccompanied Cello Suites by J.S.Bach. The programme booklet did not indicate who was to perform which work, and perhaps this was deliberate. As it turned out, Pei-Sian (above) – the slightly more flamboyant of the two – was assigned the Second Suite in D minor, opening with darker and more elegiac tones. Pei-Jee (below) played the cheerier and more familiar Third Suite in C major.

There was little to separate both cellists, bringing out gorgeous sonorities from their instruments besides displaying perfect articulation in the fast dance movements. Like a mirror image, both Sarabandes of both suites were hewn with burnished and deeply-breathed strokes. Pei-Sian had Menuets and his brother Bourrées to “dance” to, but both finished off with fast rhythmic Gigues which were breathtaking to say the least.

The final piece was a total departure from the baroque, but nonetheless required similar razor-sharp reflexes and tricky coordination as the earlier works. Upping the ante was Uzbek-Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin's Phoenix Story, composed for the duo's 2007 concert tour of the Australian continent.

The dirge-like 1st movement Tears From Above opened with drone-like ostinatos from Pei-Jee over which Pei-Sian's melody unfolded with no little lyricism. The two later switched roles, and earlier contemplation gave way to an ever-rising emotional intensity. The fast 2nd movement, Courting The Dragon, was a fire-breathing and boisterous dance that worked its way to a thrilling end.

Having had little or no time to practise a duo encore, it was left for Pei-Sian to offer Bach's Prelude in G (from the First Cello Suite) while his brother gamely watched on. No matter, the audience was loud and vociferous in their ovation.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2017)

STRAVINSKY The Rite Of Spring
Alpha Omega Sound 14-01-12 / *****

This is a live recording of a concert held in Hong Kong's City Hall Concert Hall on 17 October 2013 to commemorate the centenary of Igor Stravinsky's epoch-making The Rite Of Spring, which premiered to a famous riot in Paris. Receiving its first Asian performance (and now World Premiere recording) was an unusual transcription of the ballet for 2 pianos and 2 cellos by Italian pianist-conductor Giuseppe Andaloro.

Adapted from the orchestral score rather than the four-hands piano version, there is a symphonic scope to its conception. Giovanni Sollima's cello replaces the famous bassoon solo with an other-wordly quality to its timbre. The cellos produce a wiry tone and are also employed percussively, thus extending the range of sonorities on the pianos. This vivid performance truly brings out the music’s virility and savage intensity.

Also employed for the same forces is Andaloro's arrangement of Ravel's La Valse, a sweeping performance contrasted with the languid and atmospheric stillness to Sollima's transcription of Debussy's Prelude To The Afternoon Of The Fawn for just 2 cellos. The memorable programme is completed by Lutoslawski's witty Paganini Variations for two pianos. 20Th century music has never sounding this engaging or enticing.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, January 2017)

F.X.MOZART Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 2
CLEMENTI Piano Concerto
Sinfonieorchester St Gallen
Hyperion 68126 / ****

Franz Xaver Mozart (1791-1844) was the second son of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was just four months old when his father died. Interestingly, he was a student of Antonio Salieri (Mozart senior's supposed rival) and Johann Hummel, himself a student and boarder who lived in the same household. F.X.Mozart's two piano concertos are chips from the old block, continuing in his father's classical style of piano and orchestral writing without further developing the genre.

Piano Concerto No.1 in C major (1809) recaps Amadeus' martial air of the C major concertos (Nos.21 and 25) and syncopated tension in the opening tutti of the D minor concerto (No.20). By the time Piano Concerto No.2 in E flat major (1818) came about, Beethoven's more vigorous and highly expressive concertos had already turned the tide of music, ushering in the age of Romanticism.

The Italian Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) was a contemporary and rival of the father, upon who no little scorn and sarcasm was poured. Even his only Piano Concerto in C major (1896) sounds modern by comparison and may be passed off as proto-Beethoven. He, rather than Franz Xaver, was perhaps the true link between the masters Mozart and Beethoven. 

Trust the ever-enterprising British pianist-conductor Howard Shelley to breathe urgency and vitality into these little-known works, which are pleasant and worth listening if not life-changing. 

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.