Monday, 19 June 2017

A Concert Not To Miss: VICTORIA MEMORIAL HALL 1930 by LOKE HOE KIT & Friends

Here's a concert you should not miss:


Saturday, 1 July 2017
Victoria Concert Hall, 7.30 pm

Programme includes:
DUPRÉ Sonata for Cello & Organ
R.STRAUSS Cello Sonata
VICTOR HERBERT Cello Concerto No.2
BLOCH Prayer

Tickets from $25-45 available at SISTIC


You have titled your cello recital “Victoria Memorial Hall 1930”. Why “Memorial Hall” instead of “Concert Hall”? And why 1930?

Today, it is widely misperceived that the Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH) only started life as a noteworthy concert venue after it was renovated to serve as the home of the SSO in 1980 (which was when the name Victoria Concert Hall [VCH] was introduced). In truth, the hall has an illustrious musical history that goes way back.

1930 was the year that VMH started serving as a concert hall, following a refurbishment that explicitly transformed it into Singapore’s premiere concert venue. A truly stellar lineup of musical legends appeared at the hall over the following decades (preceding 1980). This significant part of the hall’s history has however been severely neglected; it has been largely overlooked even by the local music community today.

The likes of Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Benjamin Britten, Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky all played at the hall that the world knew as ‘VMH’. There is such resonance attached to the name VMH, and thus, I’ve chosen to use it to evoke this fascinating history.

Furthermore, the name VCH was introduced in 1980 to apply merely to VMH’s auditorium, and not the building at large. It is perplexing how it came to be widely accepted that VMH was ‘renamed’ VCH then.

Your interest and research into the history of Victoria Memorial Hall sounds like an absorbing one. Which historical figures who have performed in the Hall captivates you the most?

It’s certainly got to be Gregor Piatigorsky (left), who appeared in 1956. He is after all my ‘grandteacher’ – I studied under two of his protégés (Nathaniel Rosen and the late Paul Tobias). To think that his great and warm tone had resonated off the walls of VMH means a lot to me.

A few other notable cellists also visited during the 1950s, including Gaspar Cassadó and Pierre Fournier. Even today, visits by great cellists are rare affairs, and this must have been such a treat for Singaporeans back then. 

I’ve been aware since my youth, through reading their biographies, that many historic musical legends have visited Singapore. I was thus astonished that present-day local sources make virtually no mention of it, and felt compelled to fill this glaring gap in the narrative of our musical history. Coupled with my passion for Singapore’s history (in particular, local built heritage), I spent years researching the hall’s history to uncover the full extent of its legacy.

I’m very excited, in the coming weeks, to present a comprehensive two-part write-up about the hall’s history on your blog, which I’m sure your readers will enjoy.

Emanuel Feuermann & Gaspar Cassadó

Your programme is a rather unusual one too. Which of these were performed at VMH by those cellists in history?  

Richard Strauss’ Cello Sonata was featured by Feuermann in his second of two recitals in 1934, while the Toccata ‘by Girolamo Frescobaldi’ (a work that Cassadó claimed he merely arranged, but actually composed) was played by Cassadó himself during his visits in the 1950s.

Also, as a tribute to my ‘grandteacher’, I’ll be playing Bloch’s Prayer, which Piatigorsky performed in his 1956 recital. I’d like to add that although I’m only featuring one piece that Piatigorsky actually played, I’ve consciously modeled the structure of my recital programme after that of Piatigorsky’s.

There will be some Singapore premieres on your programme. It appears you are   setting your own mark on the Hall’s history as well. Tell us more about these works.

In addition to celebrating the past, I wish to add to VMH’s history as well by including some Singapore premieres. This is in fact in keeping with the recital’s theme, as the visiting legends often featured works that were being heard here for the first time.

There has in all likelihood never been a major solo string recital in Singapore that has featured the use of pipe organ accompaniment, and I wanted to take on this challenge. Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the organ for its sheer majesty. In fact, before I decided to pick up the cello at age 12, I briefly considered learning the organ. Who knows what might have come out of that! Although I never got around playing the organ, I’ve long held a desire to play with it. The great French organ virtuoso/composer Marcel Dupré composed a very fine Sonata for Cello and Organ, and it makes a perfect showcase for the two instruments.

I have also chosen to feature Victor Herbert’s Second Cello Concerto, the work that notably inspired Dvořák to write his own great cello concerto. It’s an appealing work with such beautiful lyricism; yet, it’s not been heard in Singapore.

How was working with organist Joanna Paul and pianist Khor Shang Jin like in these works? How does a cello even begin to challenge the might of a pipe organ?

Both Joanna and Shang Jin are such fine musicians, and I couldn’t be happier collaborating with them.

The organ may be a mighty instrument, but in the hands of a skilled and sensitive organist, we can ensure that the instrument does not overpower the cello.

What do you hope your audience can take home with them on 1 July?
I certainly hope that they have a greater understanding and appreciation of VMH’s history. Of course, I also trust that they’ll enjoy my selection of cello repertoire that has rarely or never been heard in Singapore! 

HANSEL AND GRETEL / Orchestra of the Music Makers / Review

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (17 June 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 June 2017 with the title "Enchanting opera for the young".

It was Saturday afternoon, and many children and their parents packed Esplanade Concert Hall to attend an opera. Hansel And Gretel by German Romantic composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921, not the pop-star) is a 2-hour long musical drama in the grand tradition of Wagner, which could have proven a long stretch. Furthermore, the Brothers Grimm classic involved bratty kids, parental ineptitude, paedophilia, cannibalism and witch-burning, not exactly children's fare.

Innocence and incredulity is the stuff of fairy tales, so they say. This semi-staged production directed by Edith Podesta accompanied by the Orchestra of the Music Makers led with much care to musical detail by Chan Tze Law worked a charm because it was rich in one vital element - enchantment.

Despite the many noisy children, the narrative itself was gripping enough to keep one's attention through its entire course. The opera was sung entirely in English, with helpful surtitles provided. Even if one already knew the story and its eventual outcome, much of the fun was in following the action, which had more than a fair share of interesting nuances. The scene when Hansel realised he and his sister were lost in the forest was genuinely harrowing. This was only soothed by the Angels' Prayer which provided reassuring safety and a quantum of solace.

The cast of international opera singers was also excellent. Australian mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup (Hansel) and German soprano Felicitas Fuchs (Gretel) displayed excellent chemistry as the playful sibs, contrasted by their hapless parents, a neurotic and depressive mother (Australian mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell) and a jolly-while-inebriated father (Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe).

Campbell had a second role, stealing the show as a Fran Drescher-like Witch, attired in leopard spots and black hosiery. Her blend of cackling and “friendliness”, grooming the children for an ultimate degustation, was even likeable, although eerily so. It seemed almost a pity when she had her fiery comeuppance, in the hands of homicidal kids.

The small roles of the Sleep Fairy and Dew Fairy were undertaken by very promising local singers, Evangeline Ng and Rachel Lim (below) respectively. Also impressive was the 100-strong Volare Treble Voices (directed by Darius Lim), which had added elements of movement and lights that provided an extra dimension of fantasy.

The young orchestra, honed by conductor Chan over the years on a steady diet of Mahler symphonies, Wagner bleeding chunks and John Williams movie scores, took to the music naturally. At no time did the orchestral forces overwhelm the singers.

Overall, this was a splendid production that ran for just two shows. That was, in a way, a pity because a lot more young people could have been introduced to the magical world of grand opera. Humperdinck's Hansel And Gretel is, after all, several steps away from the “real world” murder, incest and mayhem of Richard Wagner operas. 

This concert was a co-production by the Orchestra of the Music Makers and Esplanade Theatres on the Bay.

BACH CONTINUUM / Kam Ning & Loh Jun Hong / Review

Kam Ning & Loh Jun Hong, Violins
The Chamber, The Arts House
Thursday & Friday (15 & 16 June 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 June 2017 with the title "A night of brilliant Bach".

The six unaccompanied Violin Sonatas and Partitas of J.S.Bach appear regularly on recordings, but how often is the entire set heard in concert? One has to go back to 1999 when a young Chan Yoong Han performed all six in an epic evening at the old Young Musicians Society Auditorium on Waterloo Street. Kudos go to The Arts House for programming these masterpieces, spread over two evenings and performed by two of Singapore's finest violinists.

Kam Ning and Loh Jun Hong are separated by almost a generation, but both have won international violin competitions. Technical virtuosity alone is not enough for Bach's music, where the mastery of polyphony, clear-headedness of thought and innate spirituality are pre-requisites. Both of them possess these qualities by the bucket-loads.

Playing on instruments (from the Rin Collection) that existed during Bach's time certainly helped. Both used vibrato sparingly, crafting a slender but incisive tone. Also buoyant in the articulation of rhythmic phrases, they strived to embrace the spirit of the Baroque.

Performing from memory, Kam opening the first evening with the Sonata No.1 in G minor (BWV.1001), the shortest work of six. From the outset, her grasp of the idiom was total, conversant with the linear and contrapuntal aspects of both slow and fast movements that made utterly compelling listening.

Loh chose to play with a score, used mostly as a safety net, to surmount the eight movements of the lengthy Partita No.1 in B minor (BWV.1002, also the longest), followed by the Sonata No.2 in A major (BWV.1003). While his technique was adroit, there were moments that suggest he can still grow and mature with this music.

The second evening saw Kam opening with Partita No.2 in D minor (BWV.1004), with the magnificent Chaconne as its crowning glory. This and the extremely taxing Fugue of Sonata No.3 in C major (BWV.1005) were endurance tests which she conquered with stunning aplomb. Loh had some memory issues with movements from Partita No.3 in E major (BWV.1006, this time he played without a score), but recovered to close well.

It was a programming coup for both violinists to present later works inspired by Bach's muse. On the first evening, Kam performed Bela Bartok's fearsome Sonata for Solo Violin (1944), modelled on Bach's 4-movement sonatas. Displaying delicacy and violence to equal degree, she tore through its thickets of barbed notes like a demon possessed.

Not to be outdone, Loh's imperious account of Eugene Ysaye's four-movement Sonata No.2 on the second evening was just as hair-raising. Here was Bach's inspiration, fused with Paganini's diablerie and the Dies Irae chant, updated to the 20th century.

As encores on both evenings, both violinists joined hands and minds for two of musical comedian Aleksey Igudesman's riotous arrangements, trifles calculated to take the listener as far away as possible from the company of Bach and friends.    

Friday, 16 June 2017

THE COMPLETE BEETHOVEN SYMPHONIES (II) / The Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

The Philharmonic Orchestra
Esplanade Recital Studio
Wednesday (14 June 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 June 2017 with the title "Satisfying rendition of Beethoven by home-grown orchestra".

Can one actually tire of Beethoven's symphonies? In a word, no. Good performances of his nine symphonies offer an inexhaustible source of inspiration and new insights. So soon after the all-Beethoven concert by the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) led by Lim Yau held its own in the second of five concerts commemorating its 15th anniversary.

It must not be forgotten that TPO was the first local orchestra to perform the complete Beethoven symphony cycle in Esplanade, way back in 2003. The orchestra, filled with mostly young musicians, is an even better ensemble than it was before. One factor remains constant: the tireless mind and steadfast hands of conductor Lim Yau.

In performing Jonathan del Mar's edition of the symphonies, he keeps in touch with the latest Beethoven performing traditions. There is no portentousness for its own sake, but the brimming vitality and unquenchable passion that the iconoclastic German brought to his music.

Just the declamatory opening chords of the Second and Third Symphonies served as statements of intent, both delivered with an unanimity of purpose. That this was going to be an absorbing evening was never in doubt, as the Haydnesque Second Symphony in D major (1802) was presented with lightness and vigour.

After a well-paced slow introduction, the main meat of the 1st movement was projected with energy and virility, contrasted with the more rustic slow movement and final two fast movements. If only latecomers had not dawdled but settled to their seats in a more decisive manner, that continuous spell would not have been disrupted. Keeping the orchestra, conductor, audience and Beethoven waiting was the height of disrespect.

Even better was the orchestra's performance of the Third Symphony in E flat major (1804), also known as the “Eroica”. The punched-out chords that ushered in its 1st movement were followed by a succession of similar defiant gestures and clenched fists which informed Beethoven's tribute to the memory of a hero (originally Napoleon Bonaparte, but later angrily withdrawn), hence its nickname.

The development to a climax of angst-filled dissonance was a thrilling one. The slow movement's Funeral March was imbued with genuine gravitas, its weighty procession made more poignant with oboist Veda Lin's significant solos. Past its climax, the listener was made sure not to miss the famous four-note Fate motif, uttered by the French horns, that would later famously surface in Fifth Symphony. One should not be too surprised since this movement was also in C minor. 

This continued without a break into a breakneck Scherzo, where the French horn trio of Christopher Shen, Lewis Chong and Luke Lim acquitted themselves well. The finale, a set of variations on a dance from Beethoven's ballet The Creatures Of Prometheus, romped joyously to its final conclusion.

That this concert by a local semi-professional outfit could generate as much enjoyment and satisfaction as last week's Orchestre des Champs-Élysées was an indication how things have progressed.

Thursday, 15 June 2017


So you missed Midori performing J.S.Bach's Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas and Partitas? 

Do not fret, here is another chance to hear these magnificent works (all six of them) performed by two of Singapore's most brilliant violinists, Kam Ning and Loh Jun Hong.

Bach Plus: In a coup of programming, two other virtuosic works inspired by Bach, the Unaccompanied Sonata by Bela Bartok, and Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No.2,  will also be performed.

Thursday, 15 June 2017
Friday, 16 June 2017
The Chamber @ The Arts House

Both concerts begin at 7.30 pm
Tickets at $30 per concert

The detailed programme is as follows:

Thursday (15 June)
BACH Sonata No.1 in G minor, BWV.1001
BACH Partita No.1 in B minor, BWV.1002
BACH Sonata No.2 in A minor, BWV.1003
BARTOK Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin

Friday (16 June)
BACH Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV.1004
BACH Sonata No.3 in C major, BWV.1005
BACH Partita No.3 in E major, BWV.1006
YSAYE Sonata No.3, Op.27 No.3

Images by Melisa Teo, courtesy of The Arts House.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, June 2017)

The Complete Decca Recordings
Decca Records (35 CDs) / *****

Whenever music connoisseurs refer to the “lost generation of American pianists”, they mostly refer to William Kapell and Julius Katchen, artists whose lives were cut short long before their time. The Paris-domiciled Katchen (1926-1969), generally better known to local record collectors, succumbed to cancer at the age of 42. This collection of his complete recordings on the British Decca label dates from 1947 (his first recordings were on 78 rpm shellacs) to 1968.     

The discography covers Mozart and Beethoven to 20th century giants like Rachmaninov, Bartok, Prokofiev and Britten. He also championed the still-living American Ned Rorem's Second Piano Sonata. Most of all, Katchen is remembered for recording Brahms' major piano works, including the Sonatas, Variations, short pieces (all 21 Hungarian Dances too) and both Piano Concertos. Still considered by many as peerless, the playing combines vigour with tenderness, illuminating the gruff German's inner soul.

There are two recordings of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, with the 1955 version partnered by Mantovani and his Orchestra. Pianophiles will cite his electrifying Liszt-playing, an authoritative Mussorgsky Pictures At An Exhibition and two takes on Balakirev's Islamey, both that race through under 8 minutes. An artist who accords the great classics and virtuoso showpieces in equal regard deserves his cult status.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

PHILIPPE HERREWEGHE CONDUCTS BEETHOVEN / Orchestre des Champs-Élysées / Review

Orchestre des Champs-Élysées
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (9 June 2017)

One simply cannot get enough of Beethoven symphonies. Whether performed by a world class orchestra or some indifferent part-time outfit, there is something to be gained with each listen. It is Beethoven's sheer humanity – whatever foibles alongside pure genius – that lives within every note he committed to paper has the ability to move, transform one's worldview and hopefully change lives for the better.

The last week saw me wander through the ranks of the ADDO Chamber Orchestra at Esplanade Rehearsal Studio as they dutifully eked out Beethoven's Fifth, and thrilled while listening to Shui Lan's Copenhagen Phil recorded cycle on CD. Next week is The Philharmonic Orchestra's turn to present Beethoven's Second and Third in their second instalment of their second cycle of performances. All the these will find no doubt fertile soil in the ears and the memory, but the moment to live for was now: with the pleasure of Orchestre des Champs-Élysées' performances of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies under the baton of its founder-conductor Philippe Herreweghe.

The EU-based (Paris and Brussels) chamber orchestra specialises in period performing practice, that is recreating performances using instruments (and replicas) that are native to the era and milieu when the works were originally composed. It is fanciful to imagine that the Fifth Symphony experienced tonight was identical to what was heard in that December 1808 Vienna marathon concert. Firstly, modern players are far better than their forebears from two centuries ago, and the conductor Beethoven himself was already well into an advanced state of deafness. And the acoustics, and the audience...

Tonight we had a generally well-disciplined audience that did not applaud between movements, but the bronchial eructations after the slow movements of both symphonies could fill a tuberculosis sanatorium and some.

But back to the music, the audience was treated to what period performances of Beethoven sounds like – lithe but not lightweight, brisk but not hectic, vigorous but not brusque - a far cry from those old Karajan and Klemperer recordings. Thanks to a precedent set by the likes of Brüggen, Gardiner, Hogwood and Harnoncourt (in alphabetical order) in their performances and recordings, Herreweghe's approach is no longer considered heretical, but almost the standard. Coupled with playing of exceptional finesse and synchrony, it made for a most memorable evening.

As expected, the opening of the Fifth was taken in a fast clip, with no agogic pauses or posturings, contrasted by a more relaxed slow movement which breathed easily but still faster than oldie recordings. The vitality evinced at this pace was refreshing and invigorating, and nothing was made to sound business-like. 

Excellent strings supported a most piquant woodwind contribution (the sounds of which always piqued the ear) and stunning brass (especially the natural horns), which invariably got the loudest cheers. The Scherzo and grandstanding finale raced through like the wind, and at the final emphatic chords, the symphony clocked in at just under 30 and a half minutes. Amazing, especially when one was not made to feel rushed in the process. Excitement and adrenaline does that to people.

The Seventh is a longer work, and again, timing was merely relative. The long 1st movement introduction was purposefully built up, and there was no let up in the ensuing Allegro. The slow movement was a paradigm of control and expert pacing. At its first perfomance, the audience demanded an instant encore, and Beethoven obliged on the spot. Our audience accorded it with a long chorus of coughing, the ridiculousness of it all also roused a ripple of mirth. 

The 3rd and 4th movements were a case of fast and faster still (Wagner's famous description of “the Apotheosis of the Dance”, and the accuracy of playing at that speeds was a marvel of togetherness. The orchestra did not miss a beat, and that is what distinguished playing of the highest order. Timing: a few seconds short of 40 minutes, but what a journey.

Cue loud and prolonged applause (but no standing ovation), and there was an encore to reward the sellout crowd: the rambunctious Scherzo from the Fourth Symphony. Before I conclude, a shout out goes to Natalie Ng's well-researched and eminently readable programme notes, which also enchanced the experience. Here was an unforgettable evening of period performance Beethoven, hopefully not the last to be heard on this platform.

This concert was part of the Esplanade Presents (Classics) series. 

Thursday, 8 June 2017


Singapore Violin Festival
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (6 June 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 June 2017 with the title "Thrilling youngsters".

There are too few weeks in a year, such that the 2nd Singapore Violin Festival had to be held exactly the same time as the 24th Singapore International Piano Festival. In any case, the violin festival (29 May to 6 June) was the longer event and there was no clash for its well-attended final gala concert.

Instead of performances from its star-studded teaching faculty, the audience witnessed a stunning line-up of young violinists. The famous French violinist-pedagogue Pierre Amoyal, a faculty member, emphasised that virtuosity for its own sake was not the raison d'etre of the festival, but rather the kind of all-rounded musicianship imparted by his own master, the great Jascha Heifetz.

The evening's first performance was both an ear and eye-opening. One might scarcely believe that someone as diminutive as Chloe Chua (Singapore) could craft the voluminous sound and super-accurate double-stopping in Wieniawski's unaccompanied Etude-Caprice (Op.18 No.2). Her natural and unforced technique, allied with a total lack of self-consciousness had to be seen to be believed.

More came in Saint-Saens' Rondo Capriccioso with Nurie Chung (South Korea), as a thoughtfully-phrased introduction soon gave way to a final flourish of fireworks. His compatriot Nakyung Kang gave a fully-nuanced reading of Hungarian Jeno Hubay's Carmen Fantasy, a darker and more episodic work than the famous Sarasate and Waxman versions. The level of maturity displayed thus far was astounding.

In playing the Adagio and Fugue from Bach's Sonata No.1 in G minor, Wendi Wang (China) had the unenviable task of coming so soon after Midori's masterly account of the same work just a week ago. Her lovely tone, clarity of expression and total composure however showed she had been well-tutored.

The most senior player was Shi Xiaoxuan (China), an alumnus of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. Her handling of abrupt dynamic shifts in Lutoslawski's Subito was admirable, combining well with an equally adroit Ge Xiaozhe on piano. They even made this late 20th century work sound almost Romantic. 

Kim Donghyun (South Korea) is perhaps not yet fully ready to take on the rigours of Paganini's very familiar Caprice No.24 in A minor, but his work in progress still showed plenty of promise.

Arguably the best performance of the evening came from Jiang Yiying (China) in Wieniawski's Faust Fantasy, based on themes from Gounod's opera and the longest work on show. There were stretches of slow music in which her violin sang unabated, so beautifully that loud snoring was heard from the front rows of the auditorium. When it came to letting rip in the final waltz, she did so without further invitation.

The evening closed with Ysaye's fearsome arrangement of Saint-Saens' Etude in the Form of a Waltz, with Lisa Yasuda (Japan) overcoming with aplomb the tricky three-quarter rhythm with the help of pianist Evgeni Sinaisky.

Eight players in eight masterpieces. The future of violin-playing is literally in their hands.