Friday, 18 August 2017


Here are two forthcoming concerts in Singapore which you should not miss, especially if you love choral music: 

The Choir of Gonville  
& Caius College, Cambridge
Geoffrey Webber, Director
Victoria Concert Hall
Tuesday, 29 August 2017 at 7.30 pm

Tickets available at SISTIC

Programme includes:
ALLEGRI Miserere
BRITTEN Rejoice in the Lamb

Li Churen, Piano
Chorus Sine Nomine (Austria)
Metropolitan Festival Orchestra
Chan Tze Law & 
Johannes Hiematsberger (Conductors)
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday, 3 September 2017 at 7.30 pm

Tickets available at SISTIC 

Programme includes:
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No.2
BRAHMS How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place
from A German Requiem
FAURÉ Cantique de Jean Racine
PARRY Blest Pair of Sirens
SCHUBERT Mass No.6 in E flat major, D.950

Thursday, 17 August 2017

TCHAIKOVSKY'S FIFTH / The Young Musicians' Foundation Orchestra / Review

The Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Wednesday (16 August 2017)

The Young Musicians' Foundation Orchestra was founded several years ago by conductor Darrell Ang to give young musicians who have aspirations of turning professional a chance to perform in an orchestra of a high standard. Similarly, it also provides a platform for young, up-and-coming conductors in their study and preparation of repertoire works. Singapore is already producing conductors who go on to win international conducting competitions, thus adding to the universal pool of maestros to sustain classical music's future. Thus, an orchestra such as TYMFO has much to contribute to the local and international music scene.

Its latest concert was an ambitious one, conducted by Music Director Alvin Seville Arumugam who is pursuing his Masters of Music at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  Opening with Beethoven's Egmont Overture, he wrung out as much pathos as possible in its slow introduction. The opening notes and series of chords that followed were trenchant and well-defined. The heroism of its subject, the martyred Dutch patriot who defied Spanish oppressors, was captured with much vividness as the orchestra built up the drama ever so assuredly to its triumphant end. 

Next was another orchestral staple, Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn. It isn't so regularly heard in concerts these days, but it still makes for a meaty offering. The opening St Anthony Chorale theme, wrongly attributed to Haydn (who merely wrote a harmonisation), was delivered clearly and with sprightly steps. That and the opening variations showcased very good woodwind and brass playing, which was consistent through the entire concert. For some reason, the variations following Variation No.5 (the one with the “hunting horn” quartet) were omitted in this performance, and that fact did not seem to be shared by all aboard. This resulted in an abrupt break and several awkward page turns from the conductor before continuing to the finale (the passacaglia), where semblance of order was returned for a strong finish.

I think someone got the beards mixed up.

Speaking of mix-ups, did one check the programme booklet which had Brahms' and Tchaikovsky's photographs mixed up? There were no programme notes either, but the deficit was made up by conductor Alvin's helpful comments to new concert-goers. He spoke about the main motto theme in Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony in E minor and its transformation from tragedy to triumph through the work's four movements. He also touched on Tchaikovsky's depression, troubled personal life, and unexpected death (suicide or cholera?), while managing to stay politically correct (no LGBT issues even hinted at). The orchestra also played passages to illustrate the short talk, but all this took place before the interval.

One wonders whether concert-goers these days have sufficiently retentive memories for such facts, as the symphony was played after the intermission, some 20 minutes later. Nonetheless, the audience was treated to a very convincing reading of another popular work. The opening clarinet solo from principal Teow Yue Se was excellent, supported by low strings. This was a very promising beginning that got better as the movement progressed. The build up to its climax was thrilling and the orchestra brought out a very full-bodied sound before retiring to a quiet end.

The slow movement's glorious French horn solo was accorded to Alan Kartik (who is a member of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, no less) and he embraced it with open arms and a gorgeous tone. Again, the defiance and vehemence displayed as the opening motto theme returned was very well handled, and the movement's blaze of triumph was spine-tingling to say the least. The third movement's waltz provided some measure of respite, and the orchestra responded with requisite lilt before yet another reprise of the motto theme, now sounding surreptitious and subdued.

Conductor Alvin did not break between the 3rd and 4th movements, and so the motto theme was heard immediately, now in the affirmative key of E major. The transformation was now complete, and the hell-for-leather ride was underway too, providing for one of Tchaikovsky's most exciting finales. The pacing was excellent too, never hectic or overstated, as the orchestra built from strength to strength. Singapore orchestras are regularly praised for the strength of strings, and based on this performance, woodwinds and brass should not be ignored as these sections truly made the symphony their own as it raced to a breathless close. The applause was equally vociferous, with cheers aplenty, all of that richly deserved. One eagerly awaits the TYMFO's next concert.       

Students from the Clementi Town Secondary School
band attending their first symphony concert.

BALLERINAS / Lin Hengyue & Wang Ji (Two Pianos) / Review

Lin Hengyue & Wang Ji (2 Pianos)
Esplanade Recital Studio
Tuesday (15 August 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 August 2017 with the title "High-spirited piano recital".

Recitals of music on two pianos are a rarity, and the sense of occasion is enhanced when it involves the debut of a new piano duo. Lin Hengyue and Wang Ji are alumni of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and their first recital together featured a sparkling selection of music from ballets, operas and dances.

Beginning with Busoni's transcription of Mozart's Magic Flute Overture, there was a hint of hesitancy in its slow ceremonial opening, thought to have been inspired by masonic rituals. However in the ebullient allegro filled with busy counterpoint, the ensemble quickly gelled, purring like a well-oiled engine. 

This good start paved the way to an even more demanding work, the eight movements of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite arranged by the late Cypriot piano virtuoso Nicolas Economou. The Miniature Overture was taken at a sprightly pace, with its fussy figurations clearly articulated. The March, however, was more problematic towards the end, where for a few moments the playing nearly came unstuck.

No matter how hard a piano tries, it could never fully imitate the celesta in the familiar Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The duo persevered, and the end effect was suitably buoyant, contrasted with the rambunctious Cossack dance of the Trepak. Even better was the Arabian Dance, with its steady pulsing rhythm over which ornamentations were lightly sprinkled, followed by the brief but relentless drumming of the Chinese Dance.

A series of harp-like arpeggios opened the Waltz of the Flowers, the longest dance of the set, which received a generous warm-hearted reading as one could have hoped for. Besides bleinding well together, both pianists had an innate feel for the waltz rhythm and the technical equipment to pull it off.

Lin Hengyue, who was the more confident
speaker of the duo, also served as the host.

Singaporean composers featured next. Both Low Shao Suan's Winterland and Low Shao Ying's Valse de Printemps (Waltz of Spring) were French-influenced; graceful, insouciant and tinged with touches of melancholy. This unabashedly melodious music, played with feeling and sensitivity, could easily pass as romantic film music.

The final work of the hour-long recital was also the most showily difficult, the Carmen Fantasy by the famous American duo of Anderson & Roe (Greg Anderson & Elizabeth Joy Roe). Skilfully stitching together highlights from Bizet's opera, it opened with a slow wistful introduction by Wang, followed by a virtuosic cadenza from Lin before the melodies flowed.

The lilting Habañera and its ensuing short variations served like a mini-climax, unsurprisingly triggering premature applause from the audience. Then the duo went on to emote in the Flower Song before polishing off the fast and furious Gypsy Dance. Going for broke and throwing caution to the wind was the best policy here, closing the highly enjoyable concert on a spirited high.   

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, August 2017)

Vol.1 / Somm Recordings 0124 / *****
Vol.2 / Somm Recordings 0149 / ****1/2

Billy Mayerl (1902-1959) is an almost forgotten name in classical music, his legacy hanging on a few short piano pieces that fall under the category of “novelty piano” or “syncopation” such as Marigold and Honky Tonk. He was often known as the “English Gershwin”, and had been entrusted by George Gershwin himself to give the British premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in 1925. 

These two discs give a good idea of Mayerl's casual and leisurely style of ragtime jazz, music of a bygone era which basks in infectious rhythms, delicious blues and occasional wicked harmonies.

The works are either stand-alone numbers, like the wistful Evening Primrose, the busily virtuosic and onomatopoeic Railroad Rhythm, the Chopinesque nocturne Shallow Waters and the toccata-like Robots (with the possibly influence of Prokofiev), or come in suites of three to five pieces. 

Volume One contains the Aquarium and Puppets Suites, while Volume Two accounts for Insect Oddities, The Big Top Suite and the faux-Orientalism of Three Japanese Pictures. Irish pianist Philip Martin, who has previously done sterling work with Louis Gottschalk's music, is a most stylish and idiomatic interpreter. In short, he's got that swing.

Monday, 14 August 2017


Front cover of programme booklet

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (12 August 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 August 2017 with the title "Music makers carry on dreaming their dreams".

“We are the music-makers / And we are the dreamers of dreams,” are the first and final two lines of Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode (1873), which became the inspiration of the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM). Founded nine years ago, the orchestra of youths and students led by conductor and university don Chan Tze Law have become the “movers and shakers” of Singapore's orchestral scene.

The phrase itself, which is synonymous with the cutting edge of progress and revolution, made its first appearance in that poem. It was thus appropriate that The Music Makers, its 1912 musical setting by Edward Elgar was given the Singapore premiere by OMM. Joined by 200 singers from the International Festival Chorus, Taipei Philharmonic Chorus and Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School Chorus, it was another extravaganza that one has come to expect from this group.

The orchestral introduction, stormy and tumultuous but subtly built up, gave a clue to the maturity and prowess of the players which sustained the cantata's 40 minutes. The choir's entry was also excellent, their words enunciated with intent and purpose. Multiple quotes from earlier works including Enigma Variations and both symphonies formed a salute to creators and artists, essentially dreamers, and their sacrifices.

The qualities that make Elgar's music memorable, lyrical themes filled with nobilmente (nobility and grandeur), pomp and pageantry, and spine-tingling climaxes, were vividly brought out. The contribution of Australian mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell in “They had no vision amazing / Of the goodly house they are raising” provided that extra dimension of poignancy. Although it closed with a quiet and sublime equanimity, there was a strong sense that the players and singers were affirming their credo to “carry on dreaming”.

The concert's second half was devoted to the music of American film composer John Williams, who turned 85 this year. The choir was not done yet, shouting out the Olympic Games motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger) in Call Of The Champions, the anthem of the 2002 Winter Games. Williams' emotionally charged and life-affirming brand of scoring continued into excerpts from the movies Hook and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

The latter opened with a morass of atonalism before unravelling into its familiar 5-note motto theme, which musically corresponds to the word “hello”. The subject of interstellar travel dominated with seven movements from the Star Wars movie franchise. The ominous Imperial March was contrasted with the gentle Annakin's Theme, which included a motif from which the former was derived.

The choir was called again for the gripping Duel Of The Fates, and it was a eventful musical journey which closed cannily with the Elgarian strains of Throne Room & End Title. The tender encore of Luke & Leia showcased an excellent French horn solo, while Elgar had the last word in his indefatigable Pomp & Circumstance March No.1 (Land of Hope and Glory), with orchestra and choir in full blast.

Back cover of programme

VIVA VIOLA / Kris Foundation Concert / Review

Jeremy Chiew, Christoven Tan (Violas) et al
Kris Foundation Concert
Esplanade Recital Studio
Friday (11 August 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 August 2017 with the title "Viola's dark and dusky sonority".

Why have violas and violists always been given short shrift? Singaporean violist Jeremy Chiew, who organised this viola fest for the Kris Foundation, provided valid reasons in a short preamble. For example, the viola's size and volume militated against possessing the violin's sweetness or the cello's mellowness and projection.

He could, however, comfort himself with the viola's dark and dusky sonority, especially in the context of playing with other string instruments. The opening work was a delightful duo featuring Christoven Tan's viola and Leslie Tan's cello in the 1st movement of Beethoven's “Eyeglass” Duet.

Composed for a cellist friend who needed corrective lenses for his short-sightedness, this was a match of equals with the viola (which Beethoven played) given the leading voice. That both performers were bespectacled was no surprise in myopia-prevalent Singapore, and there was no surprise either in tautness of ensemble, with each instrument alternating between providing melody and accompaniment.

The combo of viola and violin also worked well in the well-known Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, with Jeremy Chiew and Chikako Sasaki respectively. Whatever agility the violin mustered was equally matched by the viola (which replaced the customary cello) in its masterful set of very short variations.

When two violas come together, as in Frank Bridge's elegiac Lament, the depth of sound was doubled. Seldom has a work sounded this soulful or long-breathed, with two similar voices mirroring and echoing each other, which Chiew and Tan brought to sonorous perfection.

Perhaps the most demanding solo fell to 16-year-old Calvin Dai who played two movements from Brahms' autumnal Viola Sonata No.2 (Op.120 No.2) with Benjamin Lim on piano. A member of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, he brought out a very decent burnished sound and was able to skilfully vary the dynamics for the expressive Allegro appassionato.

The evening's gem was undoubtedly the performance of Mendelssohn's late String Quintet No.2 in B flat major (Op.87), published only after his death. Modelled on Mozart's string quintets which use two violas, Chiew and Tan were joined by Sasaki and Andrew Ng (violins), and Leslie Tan (cello).    

The full impact of strings was immediately felt in the opening Allegro vivace, bursting with energy and vitality. The listener is reminded of the earlier and much more familiar String Octet, but this was just as absorbing, with all five players working in close tandem. Here, the violas played a vital supporting role for Sasaki's first violin and Tan's cello which had most of the big tunes.

For without violas, such a work would sound bereft of heft, and far less rich as a result. Theirs was not to hog the limelight but to enhance interest, as demonstrated in the feathery light Andante scherzando and the impassioned Adagio e lento slow movement. The finale was on the short-winded side, but that did little to diminish the overall stature of a memorable and utterly compelling reading.    

Thursday, 10 August 2017

MODERN IMPRESSIONS / Chengdu Modern Chamber Orchestra / Review

Chengdu Modern Chamber Orchestra
Esplanade Recital Studio
Tuesday (8 August 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 August 2017 with the title "A taste of Sichuan".

The final evening of the Ding Yi Chinese Chamber Music Festival 2017 was spent in the company of the Chengdu Modern Chamber Orchestra. Formed as recently as last year, the 15-member ensemble gave the audience a good overview of what is cutting edge in contemporary Chinese chamber music as well as a taste of its home province of Sichuan.

Its Principal Conductor Xiao Chao was also the composer of the first piece, Music & Joyful In Shu. Shu is the old name of Sichuan, and the work's three sections played like a precis of the region's history and culture. The meditative opening quoted local folksongs, while its middle section was a rhythmic play on operatic phrases, when every instrument turned percussion. The final section was a fast folkdance, and despite the speed, textures were lucid and clear.

Conductor Xiao Chao was an engaging host
with Ding Yi Composer-in-Residence
Phang Kok Jun as his translator.

Gao Ping's Qing Feng (Pure Wind) for smaller ensemble was an atmospheric slow movement filled with the calming mimicry of nature. A haunting dizi solo was the epitome of tranquillity before a gradual stirring of the senses as the pace picked up. If there was a motif that faintly resembled Tara's Theme from Gone With The Wind, it was most probably coincidental.

More traditional was Shu Palace Banquet, composed by a committee of three in 1981, which relived the formalities of court pageantry and music. Located in China's midwest, the influence of Central and South Asian music was inevitable, manifested by segments of syncopated rhythms, vigourous drumming and a brilliant ending.

Contemporary Western influences came to play in Zhang Zhi Liang's Legendary Bird, where muted dissonances and quiet sound effects depicted a primordial ooze from which the eponymous phoenix-like bird emerged. The propensity for avian violence ensured a thunderous middle section, before string glissandi on the huqins provided a subdued close.

Despite its innocuous title, Petals To Heaven by Guo Wen Jing was the thorniest work in the concert. Dedicated to victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, its movements recounted the human tragedy and its aftermath. The opening movement Zhai Nan (Disaster), described as Pendereckian, lacerated the ears with shrill, screeching and scraping tones before ebbing away.

The 4th movement was a “Dance of Death” in the repetitious minimalist vein, the demented kind more associated with horror movie music. The 6th movement, titled Ji (Ritual) initially pitted zhonghu against double bass. With erhu and sheng joining the fray, the catharsis – filled with a pervading sense of unease - was complete. 

A far more cheerful end to the concert came with Zhao Ji Ping's Qiao's Grand Courtyard, a suite based on music written for the popular television serial of the same title. Orchestra turned choir, and conductor Xiao left the podium to play solos on erhu and jinghu. That he was as much a virtuoso as his charges spoke volumes of the ensemble's prowess, bringing the festival to a spectacular close.