Tuesday, 12 January 2021

VIENNA TO LINZ WITH MOZART / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Wednesday (6 January 2021)

Witty and ebullient Mozart from the Singapore Symphony

This review was first published on the international music review website Bachtrack (www.bachtrack.com) on 11 January 2021.


Live concerts with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra began with a pair of Christmas concerts on 15 and 16 December of last year, bringing festive cheer to an otherwise gloomy close of an annus horribilus. The new year’s first concerts were to have been a trio of evenings with Krystian Zimerman playing all five Beethoven piano concertos, but that had to be cancelled.


In their place was a single hour-long concert, retaining its Viennese flavour with the music of Mozart led by the orchestra’s Austrian chief conductor Hans Graf. What could have been crushing disappointment was dispelled when the familiar figure of Philippines-born pianist Albert Tiu strode onstage to perform Mozart’s congenial Piano Concerto No.23 in A major (K.488). The Juilliard-schooled Tiu has been a regular and well-loved fixture in the Singapore concert scene since assuming the position of Associate Professor of piano performance at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in 2003.


Although he is better known for performing Romantic repertoire such as Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Chopin and Godowsky, Tiu’s Mozart is every bit worth the attention. To its rococo sensibilities, he offered tonal clarity, limpid fingerwork and a singing seamlessness. Accompanied discreetly and attentively by chamber forces, his solo part became an epitome of good taste and utmost decorum.


Then came a most unexpected surprise from left of field. Instead of the usual Mozart cadenza, which is not particularly virtuosic and decidedly short-winded, he served up Leopold Godowsky’s lushly (and decadently) harmonised cadenza. Those familiar with the Pole’s grandiloquent takes on Chopin’s Études might have guessed from the contrapuntal quirks, outlandish sleights of hand and generally unabashed chutzpah.


After this cheeky sojourn to the early 20th century, all returned to the 1780s for the slow movement’s lilting sicilienne. Tiu’s aria-like musings on the keyboard held sway, with melancoly and nostalgia balanced against feather-light string pizzicatos in its sublime last pages. The final rondo had an irrepressible joie de vivre, bringing the concerto to a lively close. Tiu was not done yet, the encore being his own transcription of the selfsame Adagio. Now sans orchestra, little harmonic intricacies were gently teased out, revealing yet more of Mozart’s genius.


The concert continued without intermission into Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has never been renowned as a Mozart or Haydn orchestra, having prioritised Romantic and 20th century repertoire in programming through its 42-year history. This looks to change under Salzburg-resident Hans Graf’s directorship. The performance of the symphony simply sparkled with a champagne-like ebullience. His mustering of small forces at hand lent the ensemble a buoyancy and litheness through its four movements. At no point was its overall architecture or thematic integrety sacrificed for outward display or superficial effect.


The opening introduction was direct and plain-speaking, leading to the Allegro proper with its cheeky appropriation of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus motif. Repeating it like some kind of mantra, the music spelt pure unadulterated joy continuing into the slow movement. While not taken at a particularly slow tempo, there were nevertheless contrasts between light and shade in its alternating major and minor modes. The courtly Minuetto with its gently lilting Trio section saw oboist Rachel Walker and bassoonist Christoph Wichert with delightful repartee. The earlier liveliness returned in the spirited finale, blazing a brilliant path to the concert’s close.


Concert life in Singapore following a gradual lifting of circuit breaker measures has begun to pick up with a combination of live and streamed events. This concert, attended by a socially distanced audience, bodes well for a hopeful but somewhat uncertain future.    


Star Rating: *****

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

LIM YAN Piano Recital / Review

LIM YAN Piano Recital

Esplanade Recital Studio

Last Tuesday (15 December 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 December 2020


There has not been a public piano recital in Singapore since 14 February, when Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik took to the stage of Victoria Concert Hall. Even the annual Singapore International Piano Festival had to be deferred. Thus it seemed like poetic justice that the festival’s artistic director, Lim Yan, became the first pianist to perform a recital since the lifting of the Covid circuit breaker.


In front of a socially-distanced and masked audience of 50, he offered a sparkling programme of mostly short pieces. The single-movement sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti made perfect starters, and Lim chose three less familiar numbers, all in the key of D major. It takes an imaginative artist to lend them freshness, and he succeeded by varying tonal colour, textures and mood.


Although originally conceived for harpsichord, feather-light digital brilliance was well translated into more sustained sonorities for the piano. His prodigious repeated note technique in the faster numbers simulated the guitar and castanets, while rapidly shifting chords evoked the pealing of bells.


In between two Scarlattis, Lim sneaked in the three movements of Haydn’s Sonata No.37 in D major. The baroque era merged almost imperceptibly into the classical age, as the Austrian master’s exuberant opening fanfares and grace notes recalled an earlier epoch. Light-hearted chatter and unceasing wit ruled, with only a more sombre slow movement providing contrast.  


There was no intermission for the recital. In its place was an engaging show-and-tell session which neatly linked the recital’s three composers, hosted by Yang Shuxiang, taking an unexpected academic excursion from his usual persona as violin virtuoso.


The recital concluded with Rachmaninov’s later Op.32 set of Préludes Lim astutely prefaced this with the Russian’s early and infamous C sharp minor Prélude (Op.3 No.2), sometimes called the “Bells of Moscow”, the wisdom of which would be later revealed. What followed was a kaleidoscopic show of the piano’s myriad possibilities in some of the repertoire’s most technically challenging pieces.


Lim’s grasp of the idiom was faultless, conquering the thorny mini masterpieces with an almost nonchalant aplomb, while always attuned to undercurrents of Slavic brooding and melancholy. A reference to the earlier pieces came in the skittish A minor Prélude (No.8), its fleet-fingered figurations and crossing of hands were reminiscent of Scarlatti.


The two preludes better-known to casual listeners, in G major and G sharp minor (Nos.5 and 12), were handled with love and care, their limpid lyricism shining through. The set would reach a climax in the B minor Prélude (No.10), with impassioned passages of chiming carillons which also characterised the lucky No.13. This valedictory piece completed a full circle which began with C sharp minor and closed in D flat major, both enharmonic related keys. Theory aside, these considerations are why a well-planned programme of music sounds so pleasing - and harmonious - to our ears.  

This recital was presented by the Kris Foundation, in celebration of its 10th anniversary supporting the arts in Singapore.

Monday, 21 December 2020




I don’t have a Christmas tree in my apartment but in the true spirit of the festive season, I have erected a shrine. This is an altar which no self-respecting pianophile should be without, one dedicated to the patron saints of the performing pianist.


They are none other than St Sviatoslav and St Martha, having recently been canonised by the Most Holy Pontiff of Piano Virtuosity, Pope Marc-André. Incidentally, Pope Marc-André is the first non-Italian Pope having come from Montreal, Canada. He succeeded a whole long line of Italian popes, who have included Pope Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo (died 1924), Pope Arturo Benedetti (died 1995) and Pope Maurizio (still alive but not in the best of health, or playing ability for that matter).

Anyway, back to the Saints. St Sviatoslav, originally from Ukraine, never came to Singapore. Having cancelled every single engagement to play at Victoria Concert Hall, he always preferred to perform in some barn in France before his ascension to the nether reaches. 

St Martha, originally from Argentina, is a living saint. She made two appearances at Esplanade Concert Hall in June 2018, her only visit to the island republic to date. No one has filled the hall like she did since other living saint St Lang (originally of Shenyang, China) and only the likes of St Yuja (Beijing), St Evgeny (Russia), St Leif Ove (Norway) or St Mitsuko (Japan) could possibly displace the greatness and hotness of St Martha. At the moment, they are minor living saints in comparison to the almighty St Martha.

Finally, it should be said that the shrine to St Sviatoslav and St Martha looks just about perfect at night and in dim lighting, much like of the former’s barn recitals. So here it is in the illumination of a single glowing candle, for the Debussyan effect of Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon, or something to that effect.  

So come on bended knee and worship. All hail...  

Don't you think this looks much better?

By the way, HAVE A BLESSED CHRISTMAS & MAY THE NEXT YEAR 2021 BE A BETTER ONE. Frankly, it could not be any worse, except for maybe fans of Arsenal Football Club. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

OF MUSIC AND SOUND / Ding Yi Music Company / Review


Ding Yi Music Company

Esplanade Recital Studio

Sunday 13 December 2020


Chinese instrumental music has from time immemorial been associated with programmatic music. The music performed always tells a story, describes a scene or depicts some drama. The notion of absolute music, such as encountered in Western music (symphonies, concertos, sonatas and the like), is a relatively new phenomenon in Chinese music, and this World Premiere by Ding Yi Music Company was to be no exception.


Of Music And Sound, was an hour-long work comprising an introduction and five connected movements. Composed by Composer-in-Residence Phang Kok Jun and augmented with sound engineering/design by Zai Tang, the music followed the course of a single day in the tropics (presumably Singapore), from a nascent dawn to the rising sun of the next day. Unlike previous concept concerts, there were neither projected visuals nor verbal commentary, and the audience was invited to use just their ears and imbibe whatever transpired.


Ambient sounds of nature – exotic birdsong, amphibious croaks, whirring insects - ushered in the Introduction as musicians and conductor Quek Ling Kiong took to their places onstage. Near total darkness gradually gave way to light in the first movement Dawn, which quoted the Chinese song Gao Shan Liu Shui (Mountains and Flowing Water). The erhu sang, followed by sheng, pipa and dizi, as the day awakened. The music is serene and atmospheric, then segueing seamlessly into a more animated second movement Rain, a study on different kinds of precipitation. A storm erupted with suona in full tilt before calm was restored with a big tune.


The third and central movement Dusk was a kind of reverse John Cage 4’33”, as the entire orchestra downed instruments and donned eye-shades. This was a mirror of the audience which had already been primed, both masked and “blinded”. For the next few minutes, and in the dimmest of lighting (if one chose to peek), Zai’s vividly recorded soundscapes, collected from MacRitchie Reservoir, Bukit Brown cemetery and the rail corridor, took centrestage. Claustrophobia might have been an outcome if not for the hypnotic effect provided by Nature. So this is what the Gaia sounds like when all homo sapien activity has passed, temporarily or for all eternity.


The fourth movement Night was a scherzo of sorts, alive and buzzing with energy. Its exuberance almost suggested some of the land’s more risque nightspots, Geylang anybody? Darkness descended again, as sure as night followed day. But there was no silence, a solo erhu’s lament punctured the air before a New Dawn, the finale arrived. There was another big melody, an apotheosis, before the sound melted away. So did the musicians, as the ranks depopulated like in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, leaving only Yvonne Tay and her guzheng the sole presence on stage.


In On Music and Sound, young Singaporean composer Phang Kok Jun had created his own personal version of the Pastoral Symphony. Given that this month marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth (16 December to be precise), this act of homage could not have been more apt.   

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

LETTERS TO MOZART / Jo Anne Sukumaran & Friends


Jo Anne Sukumaran,

Artistic Director & Producer

Online Concert

Recorded at Victoria Concert Hall

Premiered on 5 & 6 November 2020


This is the season when children write letters to Santa Claus. Young Singaporean bassoonist Jo Anne Sukumaran, inspired by a visit to Mozart’s grave/memorial at Vienna’s St Marx cemetery, has conceived an intimate chamber concert of Mozart’s music, with the call for viewers to pen their own letters to Mozart. This is a unique angle to present music in an informal and unstuffy manner. Aided by presenter Priscilla Foong’s smiling and friendly disposition, this made a fresh contrast to the arch-seriousness of usual classical concerts.


The first half opened with the String Quartet in C major (K.465), nicknamed “Dissonance” because of the sombre introduction to its first movement. Even the tonality sounds indeterminate, shifting uneasily between minor keys before emerging into the happy sunshine of C major. Mozart had his listeners spooked then, and he continues to surprise. The work in four movements received a lively and heartfelt reading from the young quartet of Joey Lau and Natalie Koh (violins), Jeremy Chiew (viola) and Tang Jia (cello), paying heed to the various nuances posed by the ever-witty and mercurial composer.


The second half saw highlights from Mozart operas transcribed by Franz Danzi for bassoon and cello, with Jo Anne doing the honours accompanied by cellist Tang. Included were Voi che sapete (The Marriage of Figaro) and the duet Ah perdona al primo affetto (La Clemenza di Tito). The soprano’s lyrical lines translated well for the avuncular and deeper registers of the bassoon, and the duet came off particularly well.  


For the closing act, the bassoon took the place of the flute in the Quartet No.1 in G major (K.285). Thus it became an altogether different work, the flute’s celestial chirpiness replaced by the bassoon’s earthy garrulousness. The musicians’ diligence and persuasiveness made it work, proving again that Mozart’s genius often transcended instrumental constraints.


Interspersed between movements and works were excerpts from letters by Mozart, read by SSO French hornist Jamie Hersch, music critic/lecturer Marc Rochester, arts impresario Lionel Choi, and Singapore’s grammy-nominated conductor Darrell Ang. All in all, this was an enjoyable and light-hearted way to appreciate Mozart’s music, and have you thought of your own letter to Mozart?    


You can view this digital concert at:



Here’s my humble personal letter to Mozart:


Why did you leave so soon?

Thirty-five years was far too short,

fleeting like a fiery comet,

gone in a flash.

Had you stayed another twenty,

a mighty rivalry with Beethoven beckoned,

Amadean elegance and

Ludwigean passion. 

Witness the sparks fly. 

Schubert should have been your student.

Inspiring each other,

your Lieder and his operas,

Vienna awash in song.

Past your sixty-fifth year,

what were your thoughts of young Chopin?

On experiencing Lisztomania in full stride,

or pardoning the bombasts of Berlioz.

Time is a cruel master,

but we thank the Master.

He even afforded us time

with your divine presence.   

Thursday, 26 November 2020



Utopia Symphony


NEVILLE CREED, Speaker & Chorus Master

London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus


LPO 0120 / TT: 47’21”


Russian composer Vladimir Martynov’s Utopia Symphony began as a commission in 2004 by Michael Tay, then-ambassador of Singapore to the Russian Federation. Its original title was Singapore: A Geopolitical Utopia, premised upon a week-long visit by the composer and his wife violinist Tatiana Grindenko to the island republic where they experienced the sights, sounds and tastes of the modern Southeast Asian city-state. First performances of Singapore took place in Moscow and Singapore in 2005, the latter involving the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lim Yau at Espanade Concert Hall.

Vladimir Martynov and Tatiana Grindenko.


The 2020 iteration of the work has less to do with geography or politics but rather the pursuit of a universal and ideal state of mind. Its new title Utopia does away with the somewhat cumbersome Singapore tagline,  focusing instead on what nation states and governments dream about, which is to create the ideal environment for their citizens and residents to inhabit.


Form wise, the two-movement choral symphony remains unchanged, except for a revision in libretto. The chants of “Singapore!” in the first part have been replaced by “Sky and Earth”, in an English translation of verses from Lao Tzu’s Tao De Jing (The Way of Tao). The Russian texts describing Singapore’s geography and national flag (from the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia) have also been expunged, in its place more verses from Tao De Jing.

The two Vladimirs, Jurowski & Martynov.


The 47-minute symphony is symmetrically split into two vastly different halves, as if representing the yin and yang. The first is minimalist, repetitive and kinetic, with rhythmic clapping and resonant chants. The music is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s primalism, contemporary American composer John Adams’ minimalism and at certain points, pop and rock influences heard in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass

I remember hearing a recording of this segment accompanying moving images at the rotunda of the Singapore History Museum, suitably depicting the 24/7 hyperactivity and exuberance of modern Singapore. The Tao De Jing texts extol the virtues of a small nation state, loving one’s own community and the exhortation of people to “not visit each other until old age itself and death,” (as mouthed by speaker Neville Creed), the last seemingly prescient words given this Covid-19 global pandemic.    


The second part is a portrait of serenity and blissful repose. The chorus now channels the Russian Orthodox Church as its source of inspiration, rich and sumptuous are the harmonies. Here Martynov also quotes one of his favourite composers, Robert Schumann. The theme from the opening movement of Kinderszenen (Scenes From Childhood), Von fremden Länden und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples), is heard on the piano verbatim and barely disguised. 

Less obvious is the quote from Beethoven’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte (To The Distant Beloved) which was in turn used in Schumann’s Fantasy in C major (Op.17). By now, the themes of love and curiosity of faraway lands become apparent. Add the entry of young Singaporean violinist Loh Jun Hong’s tender solo (performed by Grindenko aka Mrs Martynov in the premieres) and a chorus singing a hymn befitting any National Day Parade, all of which are congruent with the notion of a paradise on earth. So is this the essence of Utopia?

Singaporean violinist Loh Jun Hong
played the solos in Part II of Utopia.


The excellent and committed performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under Vladimir Jurowski is vividly captured in excellent sound on the LPO’s own label. Without quoting a single Malay, Chinese, Indian or Singaporean melody, Vladimir Martynov’s Utopia just be a truly quintessential Singaporean symphony.  

Utopia was the brainchild of
Michael Tay, former Ambassador
of Singapore to the Russian Federation. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

AWFULLY JOYFUL / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

No joke, that WAS the concert's title,
evident in this ticket stub.


Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall

Friday (20 November 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 November 2020


The title of Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s latest live concert must have been a misnomer. After all, how could the feeling of joy be described as awful? Unless one applied the informal or colloqial use of the word, such as in “awfully good” or “awfully nice”, it simply made no sense. Even the adjective “awesome” does not quite apply here.


Nonetheless, this chamber concert, attended by a socially-distanced audience now expanded to a hundred, was just the right antidote to the doom and gloom cast by the global Coronavirus pandemic. Every piece of music performed was simple in conception, light-hearted, happy, or a combination of all three. There was neither the need for plumbing of depths nor profound thoughts here.


Opening with Li Nixia’s Raindrops, bits of tones issued from four dizi players, seemingly random in sequence, but soon coalesced into a drizzle and later a torrential downpour. The illusion of counterpoint was quite a clever one, such is the nature of falling rain. Young local composer Wang Chenwei’s Childhood for six sheng players was a transcription of a work from his teenage years. Like a sage recounting the joys of simpler times, its catchy themes and fast-slow-fast form were easy to follow, thus making for a lasting impression.


Li Bochan’s Bows and Strings, for three erhus and three zhonghus, was a soothing serenade, with Ling Hock Siang’s erhu carrying the melodic line. It ended quietly with all strings communing in a hushed and beatific unison. Similarly, Bai Haoyu’s Reminiscence for plucked and strummed strings (pipa, ruan, liuqin and yangqin) was a sentimental love song, one imbued with the sensibilities of pop songs and romantic film music.  


Jiang Ying’s very popular Dunhuang for a mixed ensemble of eight players was led by SCO Resident Conductor Quek Ling Kiong who also doubled on drum and cymbals. This rhapsodic number was Central Asian in flavour, working its way from a slow beginning to a fast and raucous dance-like conclusion. On a quieter but similarly exhilarating note was Liu Xing’s Tuesday Gatherings, an evocation of nostalgia and camaraderie. This elegant work possessed the quality of elegant conversation between longtime friends, with the dizi being the protagonist.


To close was Zhang Yima’s Bu Yi Le Hu (Delight) performed by a tutti ensemble with instructors and alumni of the Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra joining in. By now, one might have realised this to be the Chinese title of the concert. It also aptly described a happy-go-lucky, hang-loose kind of piece accompanied by finger-snapping by the audience, providing a satisfying end to an enjoyable evening. So should this concert have been titled “Simply Delightful” instead?    

Monday, 23 November 2020




Sony Classical 88985380162


The year-end holiday season is nigh and what better way to herald the festivities than to lounge in Christmas music? Here is an excellent anthology of rarely-heard piano music celebrating the Nativity from German pianist Peter Froundjian, truly befitting the artistic director of the Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum festival in North Germany.


Released in 2017, only one of its 33 tracks is remotely familiar. It is also the longest, most virtuosic and most modern sounding: Ferruccio Busoni’s Fourth Sonatina, with the subtitle “in diem Nativitatis Christi MCMXXVII”. Expect contrapuntal intricacies, quirky harmonies and bell sound, which also occupy its companion piece, Busoni’s somewhat shorter Nuit de Noël.


A true rarity is Polish composer Franciszek Brzezinski’s Noël en Pologne, a prelude and fugue based on a Polish carol. Incidentally, this carol is also quoted in Ignaz Friedman’s Noël. Still in the East, Sergei Lyupunov’s Nuit de Noël is the first piece of his four-movement Fêtes de Noël, which begins simply but threatens to become another of the Russian’s Transcendental Études before thankfully holding back.


There are three World Premiere recordings, all by Romantic Danish composers. J.P.E.Hartmann’s Juletrost (Christmas Consolation), Alfred Toftt’s Jule-Idyl and Gustav Helsted’s Pastorale are just lovely and deserve to be better know. Now these will finally be heard with some regularity. Top Dane Carl Nielsen also gets a look-in. His Drommen om Glade Jul (Dream of Silent Night) is premised on the opening of Franz Gruber’s beloved carol Stille Nacht. Still in the north, Finnish composer Selim Palmgren’s simple and enchanting  Snöflingor (Snowflakes) opens the whole recital in a sense of wonderment and fantasy.


French music occupies the final third of the programme. Charles Koechlin’s Pastorales (12 pieces) and Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht’s Pastourelles (7 pieces) are miniatures, most barely a minute long. The formulae is the combination of simple folk-like or hymn-like melodies, sicilienne-rhythmed pastorales and evocations of bell sounds. 

Inghelbrecht’s Berceuse du boeuf et de láne (Cradle Song of the Ox and Donkey) and La marche a l’étoile (March of the Stars) also quotes melodies like Il est né, le divin enfant and the Prelude from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne (itself a Provencal tune), and sets them in delightful juxtaposition. Also heard are André Jolivet’s Carillon and a sole English composer, Arnold Bax’s short set of variations O Dame Get Up And Bake Your Pies.


Peter Froundjian performs all of these with loving care and delicacy, a vivid advocacy without overplaying their value as lovely baubles and trinkets of the vast piano repertoire. Accompanying the totally enjoyable 82-minute programme are excellent well-researched programme notes, penned by Froundjian himself, and some classic illustrations.


Other Christmas listening on piano:



Naxos 8.553461


Here is a more traditional programme which includes the whole of Franz Liszt’s Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) suite and all four pieces of Lyapunov’s Fêtes de Noël. There are some popular favourites like the Bach-Hess Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Bach’s Shepherd’s Pastorale from Christmas Oratorio (transcriber uncredited), Tchaikovsky’s December from The Seasons and Leroy Anderson’s own transcription of his Sleigh Ride.


TCHAIKOVSKY The Nutcracker


Piano & Transcriber

Steinway & Sons 30040


Canadian virtuoso Stewart Goodyear has transcribed the entire ballet for piano, but in order to cram all the music into the space of a single disc, there is a lot of fast playing throughout. However, the key dances (Dance of the Flowers, Sugar Plum Fairy, Trepak etc.) and sequences (Pas de deux, Andante maestoso and finale) get their due. While not as outwardly virtuosic as Mikhail Pletnev’s transcriptions (which takes many liberties), Goodyear is more faithful to the source and the whole spiel hangs very well in one uninterrupted listen. In his capable hands, one simply does not miss the orchestra.   

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

TOGETHER WE STAND, LIVE AGAIN! / Ding Yi Music Company / Review


Ding Yi Music Company

Black Box, Stamford Arts Centre

Sunday (15 November 2020)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 18 November 2020 with the title "Socially distanced concert with a surround-sound vibe".


As Singapore emerges from the circuit breaker, Chinese instrumental groups are taking the lead when it comes to performing live concerts. First it was the Singapore Chinese Orchestra in September, and now Ding Yi Music Company has given its first concert of the year. Admitting an audience of fifty socially distanced persons, the 16-member ensemble led by Dedric Wong and Quek Ling Kiong performed a pair of concerts fully masked, with wind players sequestered behind screens which resembled Covid-swabbing stations.


The audience was divided into two blocs, one seated in a gallery while the other onstage, surrounded on four sides by musicians and conductor. That made for a surround-sound atmosphere, which enhanced the experience by being in close proximity with the players, but not too close.


The 75-minute programme was a light one, including popular favourites of the repertoire while being cognizant of various musical origins. From Canton was Han Tian Lei (Thunder In Drought) which opened the concert with a lively bang, balanced by the more sentimental strains of the Hokkien song Wan Chun Feng (Spring Wind) which saw the melody lovingly shared by pipa and guzheng.


Lo Leung Fai’s Medley Of Hakka Folksongs highlighted the suona and percussion, while alternating between the joyous and the reflective. The late Min Hui Fen’s arrangement of Teochew favourite Winter Ducks Frolicking In The Water for erhu (with concertmaster Chin Yen Choong’s solo) and four percussionists was simplicity itself, beginning slowly but ending in a fast burst.


Building upon the theme of unity in crisis, Singaporean melodies were not forgotten. Malay song Lenggang Kangkong, Tamil hit Munnaeru Vaallibaa and Eurasian-Portuguese lovesong Jinkly Nona (Fair Maiden) were give slicked-up treatments, enhanced by audience participation with tambourines and jingles. Young local composer Phang Kok Jun’s arrangement of National Day Parade song Our Singapore provided the icing on the cake, without resisting the temptation of incorporating Dick Lee’s Home into the mix.


Another aspect of audience interaction was a pre-concert poll of works to be performed. The top votes went to Zai Na Yao Yuan De Di Fang (In That Distant Place) and Jiang Ying’s Dun Huang, both works resonating with Central Asian influences.


The encore was the world premiere of Cultural Medallion recipient Eric Watson’s Together We Stand. An ostinato bass provided by audience clapping was layered with snatches of local songs: Voices From The Heart, Di Tanjong Katong, Munnaeru Vaallibaa and Singapore Calypso. The result of which was a contrapuntal stew, a veritable musical rojak, but something we could proudly call our own.  

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

METAMORPHOSEN AND MOZART WITH HANS GRAF / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Streamed online at Sistic Live

Friday (6 November 2020)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times print edition on 11 November 2020 

One unforeseen consequence of the present pandemic and social distancing measures has been the proliferation of chamber music performances. At a time when large-scaled symphonies, choral works and operas are not being performed, there has been a boon for the likes of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and composers whose output included works for chamber-sized forces.  


The latest Singapore Symphony Orchestra concerts have followed this trend, smartly juxtaposing classical composers with those from the 20th century. Under Chief Conductor Hans Graf’s direction, Richard Strauss and Mozart became comfortable bed-fellows in a programme that contrasted grief and mourning with verve and jollity.


Strauss’ Metamorphosen (1945) was a late and autumnal work for 23 string musicians composed on the wake of the Second World War’s horrors. Germany, originally the aggressors, had been soundly defeated, with its cities laid to waste by Allied bombing. A far cry from his brash tone poems and opulent operas, its austere half-hour was served with the solemnity and decorum it deserved.


SSO strings were, as usual, sumptuous and richly sonorous without trivialising the requiem that was being delivering. The pacing of its narrative was expertly reined by Graf, with tempos which neither dragged nor became a caricature of its funereal message.


Varied textures were neatly layered, with solos by concertmaster Kong Zhao Hui emerging from the throng like a beacon through a mist of strings. The music gradually built up to a cathartic climax, before a quote from Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony near the end reminded that this work marked a definitive end to a sorry epoch in history.       


Following this was Mozart’s Serenade in B flat major (K.361), also called the Gran Partita, scored for 12 winds and double bass. Its seven movements spelt pure delight from start to finish. The slow introduction to the opening movement provided a sense of sobriety before festivities were unleashed.


Playing was pin-point and precise, with clarity and nimbleness of articulation being enduring hallmarks. In the slow Adagio third movement, one might be reminded of a memorable scene from the movie Amadeus. Here Antonio Salieri’s vivid description of the oboe’s sublime entry, “a single note, hanging there, unwavering...” is relived. To this end, principal oboist Rachel Walker’s pristine solo seemed like the perfect embodiment of Mozart’s spirituality and divinely ordained gifts.


The ensuing movements were no less inspired, with performances to match. The jaunty Menuetto was well contrasted with the stately Romance and its animated central section, while the sixth movement’s inventive Theme and Variations provided a neat summation of the players’ responsiveness and proficiency. All was brought to bear in the fast and furious Rondo finale, milked for all its worth, and one heady romp bringing the chamber concert to a happy close.