Wednesday, 22 January 2020

LOVE AND PASSION / Singapore Lyric Opera / Review

Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Recital Studio
Monday (20 January 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 January 2020 

Is there any opera that is not about love and passion? Thus the title of Singapore Lyric Opera’s (SLO) latest concert seemed as superfluous as it gets. Nevertheless, one got the idea with this lovely programme of arias, duets and trios from nine operas sung in Italian and French.

SLO has recently worked with young prize-winning singers and scholarship holders, but this evening was reserved for veterans and stalwarts of the company to strut their stuff. But where were the many singing students in various institutions, conspicuous for their absence in a sparsely filled hall? Surely they could learn something or two from the likes of soprano Nancy Yuen, tenor Israel Lozano, baritone Song Kee Chang and accompanying pianist Boris Kraljevic.

It was the Spaniard Lozano, former Placido Domingo protégé, who opened the show with Questa o quella from Verdi’s Rigoletto. In this lusty aria from opera’s most infamous womaniser, the Duke of Mantua, Lozano sounded and looked the part with impressive flourishes in high registers. His other arias were from Verdi’s La Traviata and Massenet’s Werther. The latter was the unforgettable Pourquoi me reveiller, where unrequited love in spring could only lead to suicide.  

Not overshadowed was the Korean Song, whose rich and mellow tone was well suited for a bel canto aria from Bellini’s I Puritani. His portrayal of the older Germont in Di Provenza il mar (from La Traviata) also tugged on the heartstrings, as did Nimico della patria from Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. While not exactly love songs, these were however tinged with longing and regret.

Yuen, also SLO’s Artistic Director, regrettably sang only one aria. However nobody can scale the heights of Vissi darte from Puccini’s Tosca as effortlessly as she does in her signature role. With the absence of programme notes or printed libretti, she and Lozano introduced their numbers with brief but helpful explanations.

Good as the solos were, the duets and ensemble pieces stole the show as all three singers exhibited excellent chemistry with their blended voices. Yuen and Lozano emoted in Signor ne principe (Rigoletto) and the poignant Parigi o cara (La Traviata), which was a tearjerker.  Lozano and Song relived two of opera’s greatest bromances in In un coupe (Puccini’s La Boheme) and the familiar Au fond du temple saint from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. And how the room shook.

Yuen and Song accounted for a duet in La Boheme and the most unexpected treat in Te souvient-il du lumineux voyage from Massenet’s Thaïs. This is none other than a glorious reprise of the famous Meditation, with the violin’s unforgettable melody replaced with soaring voices.

The highly enjoyable concert closed with a Three Tenors-styled medley of four Neapolitan songs: O Sole Mio, Non Ti Scordar di me, Torna a Surriento and Funiculi Funicula. Two encores in Santa Lucia and Leoncavallo’s La Mattinata brought down the house and raised a standing ovation.  

Monday, 20 January 2020


Victoria Concert Hall
Thursday (16 January 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 January 2020

Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin has become a familiar figure with Singapore audiences over the years, with appearances at the Singapore International Piano Festival and Singapore Symphony Orchestra concerts. His latest recital was however part of a year-long series organised by Altenburg Arts, but had the heady feel of the celebrated Piano Festival.

Hailed as one of the planet’s foremost interpreters of Scarlatti, his recital opened with a selection of four Sonatas by the Italian baroque composer. Heard on the modern grand piano, these are a world apart from their origins as harpsichord pieces. Applying generous but judicious pedalling, svelte legatos and incisive accents, these shined like variegated gems.

Purists might object to the ornamentations applied to the familiar Pastorale in D minor (K.9) or octave augmentations in La Chasse in C major (K.159), but these stylings were spontaneous and well within the spirit of our times. Works of antiquity need not be preserved in moth balls as museum artifacts, but may be enjoyed for their ageless quality.

The same can be said of piano transcriptions of orchestral works. Even though 88 keys may not completely supplant the sonorities of massed string, wind and percussion instruments, well-crafted arrangements can simulate orchestral textures and even seduce the ear. Such was Sudbin’s transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo And Juliet Fantasy Overture.

This not only conveyed the dramatic intensity and contrapuntal complexity of the original, but had the audacity of being ridiculously difficult to pull off. While basking in its big melody and brooding with darker pages, Sudbin joins the likes of Rachmaninov, Horowitz, Feinberg and Pletnev as master pianist-transcribers of the Russian school.  

Still with Tchaikovsky, nothing could be more different than two Nocturnes (Op.10 No.1 and Op.19 No.4), charming salon works which revealed a more melancholic and sensitive side. Far more demanding technically was Scriabin’s Nocturne in D flat major (Op.9 No.2), with its dizzying central cadenza, accomplished by left hand alone. As if to prove the point, Sudbin kept his right hand firmly planted on his lap.

The recital’s final work was Ravel’s diabolical triptych Gaspard de la nuit, inspired by three poems of Gothic horror by Aloysius Bertrand. This is a virtuoso’s paradise, and how Sudbin mastered the liquid tremolos and splashy sweeps of Ondine, water piece par excellence. Stillness and bleakness enveloped Le Gibet, with its insistently tolling B flat octave accompanying the swaying motion of a hanging corpse on the gallows.

Little would prepare one for the sheer malevolence of Sudbin’s portrait of the bow-legged goblin Scarbo. This was the Devil in person himself, manifested in coruscating violence and a reading that would scarcely be bettered for sheer pianistic brilliance.

Loud and noisy applause greeted its mercurial and elusive close. Sudbin’s obligatory encore was Scarlatti’s lyrical Sonata in F minor (K.466), a declaration that the recital had completed a perfect circle.  

Friday, 17 January 2020


re: Sound
Victoria Concert Hall
Wednesday (15 January 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 January 2020 with the title "Sumptuous serving of 20th-century music".

Twentieth-century music has a special place in the repertoire of re:Sound, Singapore’s first professional chamber ensemble, and its latest concert was proof of that. In a programme of string music led by former Singapore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich on violin, the group impressed with a show of refined playing and cohesiveness.

Although Leos Janacek is considered the great 20th century Czech composer, his youthful Idyll dates from 1878. In seven short movements, its folksong-based idiom resembled that of his friend and mentor Antonin Dvorak, notably the Serenade for Strings. A sumptuous and full-bodied sound was coaxed from the ensemble, which made for a pleasant and undemanding half-hour.

Jump a hundred-and-sixteen years to 1994, and we get the Australian Carl Vine’s Inner World. Scored for solo cello with amplified taped sounds, this was SSO Principal Cellist Ng Pei-Sian’s tour de force to luxuriate in ruminative plaints before launching into exuberant dance. The recorded sounds included electronic transformations of the solo part mixed with otherworldly streams and rhythmic beats, representing the instrument’s life and matter of string, hair and wood.

In this version, Ng had the backing of a larger string ensemble near its end, appearing  surreptitiously as stage-lights were turned on. The exultant close was a plethora of sound, and here Ng  risked being drowned out by the aural congestion.

No fears of that transpired in American Christopher Theofanidis’ The World is Aflame (2006) with just Ng and Yuzefovich on stage as a duo partnership. This was a compact seven minutes of total concentration, with both having disparate roles but closely mirroring each other. Call this a duel rather than a mere duet. With each upping the ante, only to be matched with equal vigour and vehemence, here was a titanic struggle between firsts among equals.

The closing work was Dmitri Shostakovich’s familiar Eighth String Quartet arranged by Rudolf Barshai and retitled as the Chamber Symphony (Op.110a) for string orchestra. Despite its popularity, this is a dark autobiographical reflection of life and death in the age of Stalinist totalitarianism. The work follows his own 4-note motto theme (D-E flat-C-B) through five movements of tumultuous upheaval and angst-laden emotions.

Along the way, quotes from his pivotal works are littered like bread crumbs, and the listener is compelled on a harrowing journey from solemn beginning to sorrowful end. The ensemble coped well with its roller-coaster ride of dynamic changes. The Jewish melody from his Second Piano Trio in the 2nd movement was belted out with no little irony, that being the composer’s diatribe against anti-Semitism.  

The manic waltz of the 3rd movement gave way to the slow movement’s pathos, distinguished by Theophilus Tan’s soulful cello song, an aria from Shostakovich’s most controversial opera, Lady Macbeth Of Msentsk. The slow finale gradually wore down, and the stagelights being extinguished  became a poignant moment. Even enthusiastic applause, which the performance surely merited, almost seemed out of place here.  

Monday, 13 January 2020

RHAPSODIES OF SPRING 2020 / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (11 January 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 January 2020 with the title "Seasonal favourites and comedy act for Chinese New Year".

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s annual Chinese New Year concerts are as much about engendering nostalgic feelings as festive fervour. This year’s offering conducted by Yeh Tsung was a 2-hour-long variety show which appealed to certain age demographics, but had good music on top of seasonal favourites.

Li Huanzhi’s familiar Spring Festival Overture was de rigeuer, and did much to rouse spirits as a rowdy opener. More modern in feel was Cheng Dazhao’s The Rodent’s Wedding, greeting the next animal character of the Chinese zodiac. Terse chords and fanfares issued from the winds, while drumrolls heralded subterranean rumblings of scurrying strings.

The rats evoked in this symphonic poem were not of the benign country variety but rather rugged and gritty denizens that thrived in the urban jungle. Unpitched percussion displayed a rhythmic vigour that was consistent for this hard-hitting and dramatic piece.

Eve of the Wedding Day was a single-act comedy scripted by Tung Ka Wai with music by Phang Kok Jun. Employing the thespian talents of nine disc jockeys from Mediacorp Chinese language radio station Capital 98.5 FM, the amusing story centred on Chinese wedding traditions as experienced by three generations of a local family, each with its own ingrained values and prejudices.

The music included a cheery prelude, a procession by winds and percussion, and several interludes. These separated the present and flashbacks to 1967 and 1991, when times were different but traditions remained steadfast and strictly adhered to. There were many funny moments, the best being a trade of hidden barbs and jibes between to be mother-in-laws conducted with landline telephones. At risk was the unfathomable position of losing face to the other side. How very Chinese, however tongue-in-cheek.

After the interval was the concert’s longest segment, Symphonic Medley “Teresa Teng” by SCO Composer-in-Residence Law Wai Lun. Running for some 35 minutes, this comprised an overture, three movements and a finale filled with songs popularised by the late-lamented Taiwanese songstress in the 70s and 80s. Shanghai-born singer Yuan Jin, getai star and hailed as “young Teresa Teng of Singapore”, did the honours.

The overture included the melody Ye Lai Xiang (Midnight Fragrance), while each ensuing movement comprised two songs and capturing varied moods. Most familiar was the 3rd movement entitled True Sentiments, which saw Tian Mi Mi (the Chinese version of Indonesian folksong Dayung Sampan) and Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin (The Moon Represents My Heart) relived.

While Yuan did a good job in Law’s idiomatic arrangements, the likes of Teresa Teng’s innocence, sweetness and inimitable style will never be seen again.

The concert closed with Sim Boon Yew’s Spring Festival Medley, sung by Yuan and all the Capital 95.8FM stars. The lyrics to In The Spring, Red Couplets and Da Di Hui Chun (Spring Returns To The World) were quite a mouthful so it became a merry clap-along for the audience.    

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

A PIANO RECITAL NOT TO BE MISSED: YEVGENY SUDBIN at Victoria Concert Hall, Thursday 16 January 2020

Here is a piano recital not to be missed. 

Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin makes a welcome return to Singapore for a one-night-only piano recital at Victoria Concert Hall on 16 January 2020. This recital is presented by Altenburg Arts, the brains behind Yuja Wang and Martha Argerich's debuts in Singapore.

Place: Victoria Concert Hall
When: 7.30 pm, Thursday 16 January 2020

Tickets available at SISTIC 


Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
SCRIABIN Nocturne for the left hand, Op.9 No.2
RAVEL Gaspard de la nuit

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

WAGNER'S DIE WALKÜRE / Orchestra of the Music Makers / Review

Soloists with Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (5 January 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 January 2019 with the title "Wagner's Valkyrie a long but enjoyable ride".

Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung has finally arrived in Singapore. The brains behind this ambitious undertaking were however neither Singapore Lyric Opera nor Singapore Symphony Orchestra, but the 12-year-old volunteer outfit, Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) and its music director Chan Tze Law. Given OMM’s track record of performing Mahler symphonies and mounting semi-staged productions of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel and Bernstein’s Mass, the Ring Cycle seemed inevitable, a matter of when and not if.

Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the second opera of the four-part cycle, and arguably its most familiar instalment. Comprising three acts sung in German and running close to six hours (inclusive of two long intermissions), this might seem a test of endurance for performers and audience alike, but its minutes passed eventfully and seemingly effortlessly.

There were two long intermissions of
30 and 90 minutes between the acts, 
and the audience was called to return when
OMM brass played the Valkyrie theme. 

Put this down to Wagner’s genius in building up dramatic edifices and his spectacular music, but this semi-staged effort directed by Edith Podesta and conducted by Chan had many plusses to its advantage. Employing a full symphony orchestra (with the luxury of four harps) rather than a mere pit band meant that the rich and opulent orchestration was heard in its full glory.

All the singers were in costume, with their facial expressions projected on a large screen, so they had to be great actors as well. Onscreen English transliterations also helped with following the plot and all its intrigues. The set design was simple but excellent, with a long dinner table placed centrestage for Act I, and two flights of stairs behind the orchestra leading skyward to Valhalla.   

The main cast of six singers has a wealth of experience in Wagner, with the tender chemistry between star-crossed and incestuous lovers Siegmund (tenor Bryan Register) and Sieglinde (soprano Lee Bisset) being immediately palpable. Just as apparent were their antagonism to Hunding (bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi), Sieglinde’s menacing and seething husband. The First Act’s love duet was literally a runaway success.

Similarly, one could easily sense the prickles between the celestials Wotan (baritone Warwick Fyfe) and Fricka (mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup). How conflicted the hen-pecked Wotan became, caught between love for his earthly offspring and heavenly responsibilities, made him the most human character of this melodrama. His nearly fraying voice in Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music at the opera’s end attested to a genuine world-weariness.

Brünnhilde (5th from right)
and her sisters.

The eponymous Valkyrie was Brünnhilde (soprano Alwyn Mellor), a stunning presence who elicited much sympathy for her self-assurance and independent mindedness. Her eight sisters, including Singaporean singers Janani Sridhar and Jade Tan Shi Yu, shone in Act 3’s famous Ride of the Valkyries, possibly the cycle’s most iconic and recognisable sequence. There were no flying horses but costumes resembling jedi knights with fascist leather jackboots did the trick.

Given Walküre’s good box office showing and the tumultuous applause that greeted it, more Wagner operas are expected. OMM has already announced Das Rheingold, the first Ring cycle opera, for August 2021. One can hardly wait.