Tuesday, 22 July 2014

SINGAPORE! A MUSICAL CELEBRATION III / Singapore Wind Symphony with Jeremy Monteiro and Friends / Review

Singapore Wind Symphony with
Jeremy Monteiro & Friends
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (20 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 July 2014 with the title "High times with a giant of jazz".

After Jeremy Monteiro had performed in May with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra on tour in three concerts, conductor Yeh Tsung introduced him to the Chinese audience as a Singaporean virtuoso. “Not Chinese, not Indian, not European but a full-blooded Singaporean,” were the choice words used. Truly there cannot be a greater tribute to one’s nationality to have been described in such terms.

This concert by the Singapore Wind Symphony is part of an on-going series conceived by conductor Adrian Tan celebrating Singaporean music. On show was Cultural Medallion recipient Monteiro, who is as prolific a composer as he is pianist. What constitutes a national style of jazz is still being defined, but it was Monteiro’s eclectic and international style, drawing from disparate inspirations, which put Singaporean jazz into the global spotlight.

It began with Overture In C - The Story of Singapore, a non-jazz number which featured Malay-styled drumming and the pomp of British pageantry for a short round-up of local history. Then the giant of jazz strode out with his rhythm section including drummer Tama Goh, bassist Brian Benson and guitarist Rick Smith.

Monteiro led from the piano with soloists Julian Chan on saxophone and flautist Rit Xu shining in Helvetica, a fast number with some unstated Swiss connection, and the swinging Blues For The Saxophone Club, reliving high times at the old jazz club on Cuppage Terrace. Thrillingly he brought out the stock-in-trade scintillating runs on his right hand, which still amaze given his sizeable girth and apparent laid-back demeanour.

In Brothers, Kenneth Lun’s flugelhorn sang a silvery blues, as the jazzmen paid tribute to the big band fraternity within the wind orchestra. Olympia was a heady marching tune Monteiro wrote for some imaginary Olympic Games topped with a brash and brassy bluster. The frenetic Orchard Road, co-written with Ernie Watts in a traffic jam, would not have sounded out of place in a Rio mardi gras.

The young arrangers of the concert reads like
a Who's Who of Singaporean music.

Another Time, Another Place was a slow sentimental piece with harp thrown in which Monteiro figured could have made great movie music had he been asked. Typically it gradually worked itself into a grandstanding climax. Local jazz singer Rani Singam joined in three songs, the first being Swing With Me, originally known as Strutting Down Sukhumvit but now dressed with a distinct Broadway accent. 

Young composer-arranger Chok Kerong was generously afforded the spotlight with two songs with Singam, the meditative Frailty and the livelier You’ll Never Have To Dance Alone (Samba No.1), which showed that the art of song-writing here continues to thrive.

The 90-minute concert closed with Monteiro’s Soliloquy, which culminated with a solo cadenza and a swipe into the innards of the piano, and the thoughtful National Day Parade favourite One People, One Nation, One Singapore. In a Freudian moment, conductor Adrian Tan addressed the man of the hour as Sir Jeremy Monteiro, and then added, “Duke Ellington is great, but can’t we play some Jeremy Monteiro once in a while?” He had just echoed the thoughts of many in the audience. 

Jeremy Monteiro signs off with a wave.

Monday, 21 July 2014

MUSICAL LANDSCAPES FOR ALL SEASONS / Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (19 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 July 2014 with the title "The future of Chinese orchestra is fine".

The Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra (SYCO) is the junior wing of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO), formed by young musicians from the age of 11 to 26. A national project of excellence, it serves as a feeder for the main orchestra besides playing an important role in furthering Chinese instrumental music among the young in Singapore.

Led by Quek Ling Kiong and Moses Gay, both conductors of the SCO, its annual concert was an impressive showcase of solo and ensemble virtuosity that bodes well for the future. The 2-hour long programme began with World Premiere of Liu Qing’s Puppet Show.

Ever the enthusiastic proselytiser, SCO Resident Conductor Quek introduced the important elements of the work, including plucked strings simulating percussion and bowed strings portraying the human aspects of the ancient art-form of puppetry. Concertmaster Huang Yiheng’s gaohu solo also accurately characterised the gingerly steps taken by a novice monk who takes a tumble in this vigorous and engaging piece of musical storytelling.

Leanne Ong Teck Lian was the Chinese language
narrator in Phoon's Chinese Music for All Seasons.

Phoon Yew Tien’s Chinese Music for All Seasons was an ideal vehicle to introduce a brief history of Chinese orchestral music. Within its short 15 minute span, the work covered Chinese music’s humble roots from homophonic and unison instrumental music, through simple ensemble groups to the complex symphonic organisation of the modern Chinese orchestra. In describing a rapidly metamorphosing genre, its colourful canvas included melodies like Sceneries of Wuxi, Coloured Clouds Chasing the Moon and Tune of the Bamboo Flute.

SCO Assistant Conductor-in-Residence Gay conducted three works highlighting different sections of the orchestra. Plucked strings – the pipa, liuqin, ruan and double bass – featured in a suite of three popular songs from Chinese Sights and Sounds by Bao Yuan Kai, a serenade for strings that resembled those Russian balalaika ensemble works of old.

Reflections of the Moon on Erquan by legendary blind erhu exponent Ah Bing brought out a beautiful svelte sonority from bowed huqin strings. It was a nice gesture of conductor Gay to highlight the contribution of young visually-impaired erhu player Stephanie Ow at the end of the piece. Charms of Xiangxi, by a committee of three composers Wang Zhi, Lin Zhen Gui and Yang Nai Lin, was an exuberant show of percussion prowess (below) and full orchestral forces.

To close, Quek returned to conduct Chen Ning-chi’s Romance of the Old Capital, a 1984 symphonic poem that recounted a traveller’s eventful journey on the Old Silk Road. Roy Yuen’s solo guzheng opened this rhapsodic work which took on an exotic melange of Central Asian themes before reaching a rowdy climax with a brassy chorus of suonas bursting forth (below).

Its quiet ending with the return of the guzheng heralded a tumultuous applause. The ending of Liu’s Puppet Show, this time punctuated with scored chanting, was delivered as an exuberant encore. The future of Chinese instrumental music in Singapore is in good hands.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2014)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Naxos 8.573188 / *****

Only one of Dmitri Shostakovich’s purely orchestral symphonies has not been performed in Singapore: the Fourth Symphony No.4 in C minor, arguably his greatest, and for good reason too. It plays for over an hour, calls for a massive orchestra with strings, winds, brass and percussion multiplied manifold, and is the epitome of shrillness and stridency. Completed in 1936, the symphony was immediately withdrawn following the scandal of his opera Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk, which was roundly criticised by Stalin himself. The content of the 3-movement symphony may be called to question for its extreme dissonance, raucous violence and in-your-face ironies. Its litany of mocking marches and grotesque dances are a barely-concealed criticism of contemporary Soviet society.

This performance in a highly successful recorded symphony cycle led by young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko does not stint on the music’s bleakness and bathos. The woodwinds, brass and percussion are particularly spectacular in spewing out the bile and vitriol that permeates the work from beginning to end. And when a seemingly triumphant C major apotheosis threatens to restore a semblance of sanity and faith, the symphony peters off to an enervating and whimpering close. This is perhaps music’s most eloquent portrayal of futility and despair, in a most vivid reading with no quarter given.    

Ondine 1230-2D (2 CDs) / ***1/2

This new recording by maverick American pianist Tzimon Barto brings together the great piano works inspired by Italian virtuoso violinist-composer Niccolo Paganini’s famous Caprice No.24 in A minor for unaccompanied violin. Itself a set of variations, the hair-raising caprice has sparked the imagination of composers over the year, who have added their own variations into the mix. Barto opens with Franz Liszt’s 6 Grand Etudes After Paganini, with Etude No.6 being a free transcription of the afore-mentioned caprice. Etude No.3 is, of course, the ubiquitous La Campanella. Barto’s seemingly effortless technique is beyond reproach but he takes plenty of liberties in tempos and dynamics. In Brahms’s fearsome set of Paganini Variations Op.35, that includes re-writing a variation or two.

For 20th century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations for two pianos, he plays both parts which are overdubbed to spectacular effect. The major disappointment is in Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, where Barto is partnered by the Schleswig Holstein Festival Orchestra conducted by his mentor Christoph Eschenbach. Here he cannot resist the temptation of pulling and stretching tempos out of shape. The famous 18th Variation, emotional climax of the work, sounds wilful and almost interminable in these hands. The double-CD set is priced at the cost of a single disc. This is manna for the curious and seekers of the unusual (and perverse).

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hands the baton
to Maestro Lan Shui at the start of the concert.
This time he chose not to provide the down beat
for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. 

After Kelly Tang's Capriccio was Haydn's
Sinfonia Concertante, which featured soloists
Lynnette Seah, Rachel Walker, Zhang Jinmin and Ng Pei Sian.

A view of the auditorium foyer.

The spiral staircase to the Circle.

Architectural details of the hall have been retained.

A row of Corinthian columns.

The balconies on the third floor, which used to hold
the ABRSM offices and studios.

Concertmaster for the evening
Lynnette Seah tunes the orchestra for the second half.

A view from the circle of Brahms's First Symphony.

A close-up of Lan Shui conducting.

A standing ovation after the Brahms.

Announcement of an encore:
A Victorian encore for Victoria Concert Hall.
Elgar's Nimrod from Enigma Variations.

Acknowledging the applause
after Dick Lee's Home in Kelly Tang's orchestration.
VCH is truly the home of the SSO.

A final photo for the VIPs. (From L)
SSO Chairman Goh Yew Lin, Lynnette Seah, Minister
Lawrence Wong, Ho Ching, PM Lee, NAC Chairman
Chan Heng Chee, Maestro Lan Shui and Edmund Cheng.

A night view of the Old Vic,
in all its glory.
All I want for Christmas is a
VCH line-drawing paper weight! 

Monday, 14 July 2014

A MALAY RHYTHMS EXTRAVAGANZA / Asian Contemporary Ensemble / Review

Asian Contemporary Ensemble
The Living Room @ The Arts House
Friday (11 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 July 2014 with the title "Exuberant spin on traditional music".

The Asian Contemporary Ensemble was formed by young conductor-composer Wong Kah Chun to showcase new music written by young Asian composers reflecting their unique ethnic cultures and heritage. It made its debut several years ago at the National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts. Now it even has a season of its own, with this opening concert centred on Malay music.

For most non-Muslims, Singapore’s indigenous music is occasionally heard at Malay weddings, the odd multi-cultural event and television variety shows. The traditional concert hall where Beethoven is king might seem as foreign as possible a venue to hear Malay music but this 90 minute concert, attended by a full house, broke down barriers.

The five works receiving their World Premieres were based on five dance or rhythmic forms encountered in Malay music. Traditional examples of these dances were performed before each piece, and it was left for each of the five composers to meditate, elaborate or leave his or her personal mark on each of the forms. The results were both revealing and enlightening.

Malay composer Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli
speaks about his work Ala Nar.

Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli’s Ala Nar (On Fire) was based on the masri, a festive women’s dance with Arabic origins sometimes associated with belly dancing. The vigorous piece was memorable as it demonstrated the far reach of Islamic influences; parts of it sounded like a Spanish dance, notably the malaguena from southern Spain

Jeremiah Li and Joyce Poh were
interviewed by conductor Wong Kah Chun.

A Chinese Raga on an Inang Tala by Jeremiah Li was as eclectic as one could get. All three ethnic groups were represented in this deliberately modernised rojak, with improvisatory sections for dizi, accordion and tabla. Heterophony, where different instruments come together playing the same tune, a device heard in much Asian music, was also employed. 

Prize-winning composition The Sisters’ Island by Wang Chen Wei, based on a legend from the Riau archipelago, was an example of an asli, a more leisurely and relaxed dance-form that reflected grace and elegance. Adapted from its original form for Chinese instruments, the score used a toy piano with a tinkling timbre that resembled the gamelan.

The joget is a familiar rhythm from the old dancehall, and it was a pique of invention by Tan Wen Bin to transform it into a waltz in his Ruminations. Beginning like an avant-garde number, it cheekily incorporated the familiar Nokia ringtone (itself adapted from a waltz by Spaniard guitarist-composer Tarrega), and Geylang became Grinzing (a district of Vienna).

Conducting the audience and their rattles.

Finally, Syifiqah Adha Sallehin used the exuberant zapin for her Waves of Rhythm, a catchy piece with definite popular appeal. Here audience participation was directed by conductor Wong as to how and when to shake and roll their rattles for maximum effect. The concert ended on a cheerful high.

For the record, the performers were Abigail Sin (electronic keyboard and toy piano), Joyce Poh (a bagful of Chinese flutes), Syafiqah (accordion), Govin Tan (tabla and drumset), Ismahairie Putra Ishak (violin and gambus, an Eastern lute) and Shahrul Fadzly Shazuli (rebana, a Malay drum). It is hoped that an encore performance is in the offing. 
The composers take a bow (From L):
Wang Chen Wei, Jeremiah Li, Syafiqah Sallehin,
Tan Wen Bin, Wong Kah Chun (Conductor) & Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli.

Sunday, 13 July 2014


Has 50 years of nation building come down to this? When, oh when, can Singaporeans be trusted to decide what they can read and cannot read? Are we still the Nanny State where the government or governmental bodies choose to put blinkers on our eyes, just in case we see things which they deem non-Kosher?

Withdrawing and banning books is already bad enough, but destroying and pulping them? 

Thursday, 10 July 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2014)

DUBOIS Piano Concertos
BBC Scottish Symphony / Andrew Manze
Hyperion 67931 / ****1/2

History and posterity might judge French composer Theodore Dubois (1837-1924) as a staid academic and musical arch-conservative. Those qualities also apply to his contemporary, the well-loved Camille Saint-SaĆ«ns who was no more a revolutionary in his music. This disc of three Dubois piano concertos should align the two establishment figures in better perspective and possibly tip in favour of the underdog. His single-movement Concerto-Capriccioso in C minor (1876) opens with an extended solo cadenza, and shifts from seriousness to keyboard glitter, not unlike the 1st movement of Saint-Saens’s popular Second Piano Concerto (1868).    

The Second Piano Concerto in F minor (1897) is the longest work at 28 minutes but is almost perfectly judged as not to outlive its welcome. Its four-movement form including a quirky staccato-laden Scherzo, which lasts all of two minutes, seems almost identical in proportion to Prokofiev’s modernistic Second Piano Concerto, a world away in terms of musical idiom. Finally the Suite for Piano & Strings (1917), also in four movements, is a total charmer from his old age. The fact that 41 years separate the three works makes little difference to Dubois, who rarely varied his style or palette to move with the times. These performances by French virtuoso Cedric Tiberghien, sympathetically accompanied by excellent Scottish forces, sparkle like champagne, should win new friends for the much-maligned Dubois.   

BRAHMS Violin Sonatas
Decca 478 6442 / *****

It is refreshing to see and hear two of the world’s most celebrated soloists go into anti-virtuoso mode in the give-and-take world of chamber music-making. The three violin sonatas (Opus 78, 100 and 108) of Johannes Brahms could hardly be described as “easy”, but the depth of musicianship demanded goes beyond mere technical command and instrumental virtuosity. Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos is an established chamber music veteran, having recently completed a superb Beethoven sonata cycle (also on Decca), while Yuja Wang sheds her solo diva image to be a close to ideal partner.

Even in the faster outer movements of the sonatas, there is no hint of flash or fireworks, instead a subdued and sublime air dominates. Kavakos’s tone is sweet, Wang’s piano is deliberately understated and the balance they achieve together is perfect. The slow movements are as lovely as they are breathtaking in conception. As a bonus, the duo includes the tempestuous but early Scherzo in C minor (from the FAE Sonata crafted by three composers for the violinist Joseph Joachim), which opens the disc, and as an encore a transcription of Brahms’s Cradle Song, a somnolent but effective way to sign off. Warmly recommended. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

WHO'S AFRAID OF CLASSICAL MUSIC? / Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra / Review

Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra
School of the Arts Concert Hall
Sunday (6 July 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 July 2014 with the title "Making a case for classical music".

Every artist and arts organisation knows the value of building audiences for the future. The Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra under its Music Director Adrian Tan has gone to the grassroots with this rhetorical question. Conductor Tan, who also served as the concert’s master of ceremony, built an entire programme of orchestral favourites to state their case.

“Classical music is all around us,” he proclaimed and went on to provide a capsule history of Western music which he humorously referred to as his cheat-sheet. All four major periods of classical music were covered with ample musical examples. “When you hear a harpsichord,” as the orchestra started on Pachelbel’s Canon in D in a modern arrangement by Mohamad Rasull, “Think of the Baroque period,” he advised.

Never mind if that updated version included snatches of pop songs including the Beatles’ Let It Be, the idea of the concert was to be fun and inclusive. The Baroque era was also represented by Vivaldi’s Spring from The Four Seasons, with 13-year-old violinist Wu Shuang leading as the soloist. She was confident and played with no little flair.

The Classical period saw movements from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Haydn’s Symphony No.94. Tan explained why the latter was called the Surprise Symphony, as the quiet Andante movement was interjected with a loud crash from the orchestra. That elicited an audible yelp from a child in the audience, exactly what the composer had intended.

Four emphatic notes marked the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and heralded the Romantic era. Tan handed his baton to Assistant Conductor Darren Sim to conduct the first movement, which was a development of the insistent theme of “Fate knocking at the door”. Romantic opera and silly plots meant an airing of Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, sung heroically by excellent Johorean tenor Kee Loi Seng (above).

The second half was all 20th century with John Adams’s The Chairman Dances expounding the idea of minimalism. The orchestra coped very well with its intricately woven repetitions and syncopations, with the woodwinds, brass and percussion in fine form for this symphonic foxtrot. The final work was also the longest, with all three movements of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto performed with Philippines-born pianist Albert Tiu.

Tiu showed immediately why he is considered one of the finest pianists resident in Singapore. His immaculate technique, overall control, impeccable taste and judgement prevented this all-too-familiar work from sounding slushy and over-sentimental. And when the big climaxes arrived, he delivered with all guns blazing. Conductor Tan had earlier advised that if the audience applauded long enough, they would be rewarded with an encore.

Thus Tiu obliged with a variation from Rachmaninov’s Chopin Variations. By this time, this primer of classical music had run past two and a half hours. At least the audience will have no grounds to accuse the performers of not giving their money’s worth.