Monday, 16 July 2018

DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER & RED CLIFF / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (13 July 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 July 2018 with the title "Chinese works on local terms".

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra's opening concert of the 2018-19 season began with the national anthem Majulah Singapura, led by music director Yeh Tsung. That patriotic gesture indicated although the works performed were based on Chinese literature classics, the production was to be on Singaporean terms.

That this orchestra is able to hold its own, especially when performing concerts in mainland China, is beyond doubt. This was evident in Wang Li Ping's Dream Of The Red Chamber Suite, based on his music written for the iconic 1987 television serial Hong Lou Meng. That in turn was adapted from the 18th century epic in 120 chapters by Cao Xueqin about the trials, tribulations and decline of four families in feudal China.

Twelve of fifteen movements in Wang's suite were performed. The pathos of impending tragedy was captured in the Overture, with the offstage voice of Chinese soprano Wu Bixia wafting in mysteriously. Although diminutive in physical stature, she would make her outsized vocal presence felt in seven movements, portraying the long-suffering women characters of the saga.

Poem Of the Red Bean, Handkerchief Melody, Longing In Vain, Tragic Story Of Xiang Ling and Elegy On Flowers were among these beautiful but mostly tragic plaints. About eternal longing and yearning, there was a certain degree of sameness, padding up the suite to nearly an hour.

For variety, there were spirited contributions from the 40-strong Vocal Associates Festival Choruses (Khor Ai Ming, Chorus Mistress), very fine string playing from the huqins in Love Between Baoyu And Daiyu, and raucous percussion in Lantern Festival.

More compact was Chen Ning-Chi's 2003 symphonic poem Chibi (The Battle Of Red Cliff), based on a tumultuous episode from The Romance Of Three Kingdoms. Channel Eight host Jeffrey Low was a stirring narrator and vocal heroics came from Singaporean tenor Jonathan Charles Tay. The musical idiom was decidedly more modern, and the vivid orchestration flowed inexorably through four linked movements.

The famous quote Ren Sheng Ru Meng (Life Is But A Dream) opened and closed this quintessential battle piece, emphasising the impermanence of being, even if it involved Chinese legends like Cao Cao, Zhu Geliang and Zhou Yu. Their interconnected lives were shelled out in the 2nd movement Masks, where a delicate gaohu duet by Li Bao Shun and Zhou Ruo Yu stood out among the bluster.

Further solos by Han Lei's guanzi and Jin Shi Yi's suona mouthpiece set the stage for the furious final battle, with the decibel quotient raised by percussion, suona chorus, cannon shots, offstage horns and red smoke. A sensurround effect was clearly felt from the seats, a just Chinese riposte to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Beethoven's Wellington's Victory and Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, just to name a few battle potboilers.

SCO's chorus of suonas
always create a sonorous impression.

Closing quietly with a reprise of Tay's lament about life, poignantly accompanied by Xu Zhong's cello, the subtle and sober end made the work all the more memorable.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, July 2018)

Hyperion 68176 / *****

One has just about lost count of how many “Stephen Hough's Piano Albums” have been released since his very first anthology of delicious encore pieces and transcriptions (on Virgin Classics) first saw light of day in 1988. The British pianist's latest Dream Album is also his most personal. Seldom has gentle wit and prodigious technique been wedded to playing of such elegance, sophistication and personality.

Who would have thought of transforming Johann Strauss the Elder's rousing Radetzky March into a lilting and quintessentially Viennese Radetzky Waltz, or cross-dressing the Waltzing Matilda into a Caribbean rhumba? In his version of the 1950s Russian pop song Moscow Nights, he uses as a preface the opening chords of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto.

There is also a Singapore dimension to some of his transcriptions. The Bill Evans-coloured Niccolo's Waltz (inspired by Paganini's Caprice No.24) was dedicated to Goh Yew Lin, Chairman of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, while his yearning look at Dvorak's Songs My Mother Taught Me was written for local concert pianist and teacher Victor Khor. 

Original works by Liszt, Sibelius, Elgar, Dohnanyi, Mompou, Ponce, Chaminade and Julius Isserlis (cellist Steven Isserlis' grandfather) among others complete this lovely collection. There is no shock and awe in the playing, only the pleasure of luxuriating in the company of intimate and well-loved friends.  

Monday, 9 July 2018


Chamber @ The Arts House
Saturday (7 July 2018)

Anybody who has followed the youth classical music scene in Singapore over recent years will know of the immense body of talent that exists today on our island. I had a mere glimpse of it again in the I Play Yamaha Concert held last Saturday at The Arts House. This was the grand opening of an outreach programme of the Japanese piano giant to showcase local pianistic talent in various platforms over the next two years. Seven pianists were showcased – 5 Yamaha Young Artists and 2 Yamaha Artists – at the this concert. Tellingly, all seven of them had been or are still students of the School of Young Talents (SYT) at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).

The Yamaha Young Artists, aged from 13 to 16 years old, were heard first. First to perform was Adrian Tang Zhi Feng (13), the youngest of the performers. One would not have guessed that in his reading of the 1st movement from Beethoven's Sonata in C minor (Op.10 No.1). There was fire and passion in this early Beethoven sonata, yet he exhibited very fine control, contrasting the jagged dotted rhythms with legato lines. Arguably better was Chopin's early Variations Brillante Op.12 on Ludovic Halevy's Je vend scapulaires, where he easily mastered the fussy filigree with accuracy and aplomb. There was also some very nuanced playing that distinguished this from the mindless note-spinning of the early Romantics. He completed his programme with Mutsuo Shishido's Toccata, dry percussive notes executed in rapid-fire that simulated brilliant koto playing.

16-year-old Nicole Tay Wan Ni is already a multiple prize-winner in numerous competitions, and she showed her mettle in the 1st movement of Beethoven's Sonata in B flat major Op.22. Her confident reading highlighted a more lyrical approach, and there was an attempt to approximate a symphonic sound in her crisply articulated and crystal-clear playing. Only in Chopin's Ballade No.1 in G minor (Op.23) did she betray some nervousness. The opening was taken very deliberately, and the work's full range of emotions were not fully realised. There were also some technical issues, but she has a whole life ahead of her to grow into this masterpiece, and that I have full confidence in.

Daniel Loo Kang Le (15) produced a shimmering pearly sound on the Yamaha C7X in Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections on the Water) from Images Book I. His pedalling was excellent, coaxing this dreamy musing in the fluid realm to a grand climax. Just as good was his Tchaikovsky Dumka, bringing a right feel of pathos to this Slavic lament and then revelling in the ensuing short variations. Bringing out  the spectacular in this blustery single-movement piece was his aim, and he nailed it brilliantly.

Lim Shi Han (16) had technically the most difficult programme to pull off, and she did so with a seemingly fearless disregard to the multitudes of notes to scale. The choice of two Capriccios (Nos.5 and 8) from Brahms' Klavierstucke Op.76 was a coup in itself, as these represent some of the German's most tricky pieces since the fearsome Paganini Variations. The smouldering intent, restless unease and big sonorities came through, and the sense of ecstacy almost boiled over in the final number. My favourite performance of the evening was her view of Ravel's Alborada del gracioso (The Jester's Morning Dance) from Miroirs, as she clearly has the Spanish rhythmic spirit well within her grasp and was not afraid to let fly in those glittering glissandi.       

The Young Artist segment closed with lanky Jem Zhang Yifan (16), who is already well-known from his wins at the recent National Piano Competition and Steinway Competition. His showpieces reveal that is superbly well-drilled and there is little more to desire from his joyous account of Debussy's L'Isle Joyeuse, which built up ever some inexorably from the opening trills to its final romp. He knows exactly what he's all about, also in Filipenko's hair-raising Toccata, with its machine-gun repeated notes and chords, from its outset to a grandstanding finish. His was a short programme, but what fireworks he generated.

Another of my favourite performances came from Lily Phee (19), a Yamaha Artist (17-25 year old category) and also the most mature performer this evening, chronologically and musically. In Schumann's Novellette Op.21 No.1 in B flat major, she displayed a very good understanding of the Romantic idiom. Big and rich sonorous chords resounded at its opening, later well-contrasted by its lyrical second subject. While Horowitz's famous recording has always left me cold, I immediately warmed up to her playing, which had none of those idiosyncrasies or agogic phrasing. Her excellent recital was rounded off with all three movements of Debussy's Pour le piano, with brawn and boldness in the Prelude, tenderness with gravitas in the Sarabande, and mercurial lightness for the Toccata. She is definitely a name to watch for the future.

The final performer was Ashley Chua (17) who displayed much heart-on-sleeve passion in Chopin's Scherzo No.2 in B flat minor. There was some clipped phrasing and she was not always completely accurate, but that comes from going for broke and throwing caution to the winds, something I will always appreciate in performance. In Debussy's final Prelude, Feux d'artifice (Fireworks), sparks and flashes streaked the air in an incandescent reading. The Danzas Argentinas Nos.2 and 3 by Alberto Ginastera completed the evening's fine fare, and while I will not reference Argerich, it was a very invigorating way to end.

It is hoped that more from these young talents get heard in further presentations by Yamaha Music (Asia). Guest-of-honour Professor Bernard Tan (above) from the Singapore Musicians' Guild intimated that performers of high calibre and platforms for performances were short in supply 40-50 years ago in Singapore, but the climate and ground has now changed for the better for professional music-making here. Work still needs to be done, and this initiative is a step in the right direction.     


Thursday, 5 July 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, July 2018)

Warner Classics 9029581294 / *****

George Li was the 19-year-old Chinese American pianist who caught the imagination of pianophiles when he was awarded the Silver Medal at the 2015 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. This debut recording, of a 2016 live performance in St Petersburg, offers a seemingly bog-standard programme, meant to showcase a broad range of styles. However, his playing is anything but boring or commonplace.

There is a crispness of articulation in Haydn’s short Sonata No.32 in B minor, bringing much lightness and wit. Passion comes to the fore in Chopin’s Sonata No.2 in B flat minor (also known as the Funeral March Sonata), living up to Schumann’s apt description of “four of Chopin’s wildest children bound together”. In Rachmaninov’s late Corelli Variations, he brings a noble and magisterial air.

To close, he combines contemplative Liszt (Consolation No.3) with coruscating Liszt (Hungarian Rhapsody No.2) completing this masterly 69-minute recital. The masterstroke was his inclusion of Rachmaninov’s own discursive and almost-jazzy cadenza in the latter, a daring display of individual spirit that is truly refreshing. 

Monday, 2 July 2018


The Blue Room @ The Arts House
Sunday (1 July 2018)

A musician's legacy may be measured by the performances, recordings or fine reviews one has garnered over the years. More often, it is one's legacy as a teacher and mentor that is most treasured. 

The Philippines-born cellist Mrs Herminia Ilano has been in Singapore for close to 40 years, having been a pioneer member of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra since its inception in 1979. In those years in the 1980s and 90s, she became one of Singapore's most respected cello teachers. A fair number of her students have themselves turned professional and are leading lights in Singapore's musical scene today.

Five of them came together to perform in a concert celebrating her 80th birthday this year. Five years ago, a similar concert was held at the same venue for her 75th birthday. By the looks of things, there should be another birthday bash in five years' time as well, as Mrs Ilano is still actively teaching, having an average of two students a day!  

The cellists starring in this concert were:
Chan Wei Shing
Singapore Symphony Orchestra 
& New Opera Singapore conductor
Leslie Tan, T'ang Quartet
& Yong Siew Toh Conservatory 
Song Woon Teng
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Loke Hoe Kit, freelance cellist and concert organiser
Noella Yan, cellist based in Melbourne.

The concert opened with Leslie Tan, Noella Yan, Song Woon Teng and Chan Wei Shing performed Yuriy Leonovich's transcription of the Prelude from J.S.Bach's Suite No.5 in C minor. The piece already sounds rich on solo cello, so imagine how it would have sounded on four cellos! 

Mina listens intently to her former student's performances.

The duo of Loke Hoe Kit and Song Woon Teng were accompanied by pianist Selena Lai in Handel's Sonata in G minor (Op.2 No.8) as transcribed by H.Beyer. The work was in four movements - alternating slow and fast - in the sonata da chiesa form. 

Then it was the turn of Leslie Tan and Noella Yan in Jean-Baptiste Barriere's Sonata No.10, and they were joined by Selena in a Shostakovich Prelude, one of those short and very melodious pieces written without a hint of irony. 

Loke Hoe Kit and Chan Wei Shing returned to play four movements from Reinhold Gliere's 10 Duos Op.53. Despite being a 20th century Russian composer, Gliere's works are romantic in character and there was much virtuosity on show in the fast movements.

The final work was Wilhelm Fitzenhagen's Ave Maria Op.41, which is as gorgeous and operatic a work can get. Tugging on the heartstrings, that cannot be many dry eyes at its conclusion. By the way, Fitzenhagen was the cellist for whom Tchaikovsky wrote his Rococo Variations.  

Mrs Ilano was the most vociferous in applauding
her ex-students. She had certainly taught them well. 

At the end of the concert, Mrs Ilano was asked to say a few words. She expressed her gratitude and how fortunate she was to figure in the lives of this Singapore generation of cellists when they were young and growing up. We, are indeed fortunate to have had her help mould and shape our musical scene through the decades, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.

GIL SHAHAM PLAYS TCHAIKOVSKY / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Sunday (30 June 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 July 2018 with the title "Shaham shines in spirited violin concerto".

The first concert of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's 2018-19 season took place not at the Esplanade or Victoria Concert Hall, but on Kent Ridge at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. Conducted by Music Director Shui Lan, it was part of the orchestra's outreach programme in July with concerts in various venues across the island.

There was also an educational element to this ticketed event, in the form of a helpful preamble before the first work, Richard Strauss' tone poem Macbeth. Its main themes were explained and short excerpts performed by the orchestra. One of the German composer's earliest works, it was influenced by Beethoven (notably the hushed opening in D minor) and Schumann before taking on a life of its own.

Adventurous harmonies, which established Strauss as one of the great late Romantic composers, piqued the ears and soon it looked ahead towards the familiar Don Juan, which was not too far in the future. The orchestra, fresh from a month-long vacation, launched headlong into its martial and dramatic themes, revelling in the cut and thrust of the struggles of the Shakespearean anti-hero.

Soaring strings were pitted against strident brass, but the balance was just about right. In this generally reverberant hall where there was a tendency to harshness in fortissimos, the decibel quotient was easily reached but both conductor and orchestra instinctively knew how to attain that ideal without having to over-exert.

Despite some very enthusiastic accompaniment, American violin virtuoso Gil Shaham was in no danger of being overwhelmed in Tchaikovsky's popular Violin Concerto. His voluminous tone easily filled the hall, rising all the way up to the circle seats. This was matched by his natural virtuosity and barely contained enthusiasm, which quickly raised the temperature and spirit of the performance.

His solo entry was arresting, later followed up by the cadenza which sizzled with white-hot passion. In response the orchestra also upped its game. Despite the programme notes exhorting the audience not to applaud before the end of the work, the advice was roundly ignored with loud bravos issuing at the rousing close of the opening movement.

The hushed and melancholic air of the slow movement's Canzonetta was but a short respite, and here the woodwinds shined in ensemble and solo passages. Then it was in the finale where the violin fireworks ensued, with Shaham's dare-devilry dominating, supported by an almost choreographed footwork on the stage.

One might be hard pressed to remember a performance of the Tchaikovsky that oozed such irresistible elan, and the audience response with equally vociferous applause. As an encore, Shaham shared the spotlight with outgoing SSO concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich in the delightful Andante Grazioso from Jean-Marie Leclair's Sonata in E minor for two violins. This was simply a crackling start to the orchestral season.