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 in the first part have been replaced by “Sky and Earth”, in an English translation of verses from Lao Tzu’s Tao De Jing (The Way of Tao).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. 


Tuesday, 10 November 2020




Watch the opera on Youtube (below) 

and its totally FREE!

A piece of Singapore musical history was made on 5 January this year, when the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) led by its Music Director Chan Tze Law presented the first-ever Singapore production of a Wagner Ring Cycle opera. Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second opera of The Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy, was given a semi-staged concert production that would have been the pride of any of the world’s great opera houses. 

That it was accomplished by an orchestra of youthful volunteers, which engaged theatre director Edith Podesta and an international cast of opera singers, was a staggering achievement that would scarcely been thought possible, even in Singapore.


Given the Covid-19 global pandemic that came shortly after that, one wonders whether such an ambitious project could ever be undertaken again. So this might just be a once-in-a-lifetime event in Singapore history, although OMM has announced Das Rheingold to be produced in August 2021. Without such hopes and aspirations, there would not be any point to continued musical activity, or life for that matter.


So what was experience like? Watch it for yourself in OMM’s professionally produced video recording, all four hours of it, and be prepared to be awe-struck.

Friday, 30 October 2020


Thursday 29 October 2020


@ The Petworth Festival

Interviewed by Stewart Collins


By now, anybody who professes a love for classical music but has not yet heard of the young British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason probably lives under a rock or some cave in Afghanistan. Winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician Award and star performer at the royal wedding of HRH Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Sheku has six siblings who are also seriously good musicians. How did the seven Kanneh-Masons become Britain’s First Family of Music? Matriarch Kadiatu was on hand at Petworth to share insights into her recently published book House Of Music: Raising The Kanneh-Masons. I can imagine this to be the antithesis of another book, one which will hopefully never be published: House of Horrors: Raising The Kardashians.


Straight off, my wife and I were touched by Kadiatu’s overall sense of groundedness and authenticity in telling her story. The secret of the Kanneh-Masons’ success was down to a generational legacy good upbringing, good values, good discipline and above all, the closeness and love within a family. It is astonishing to learn that the children were students in normal secondary schools and not hot-housed in petri dish environments of conservatoriums. Sheku, despite his celebrity status, is still a student at the Royal Academy of Music and intends to graduate.

Down to earth and highly personable
was our impression of Mrs Kanneh-Mason. 


There was also none of the patented hocus pocus of religiosity, praying hard to be gifted heavenly blessings, nor the self-entitled glorification of toil, self-flagellation or self-immolation. There were sacrifices made by Kadiatu and her husband Stuart, for certain, but these were in the contexts of ensuring that love was never in short supply within the family while the kids were growing up. One thing we’ve also learnt: you do not need to be a “Tiger mother” or “Helicopter parent” to produce geniuses.  


Coming from a multi-cultural background of Sierra Leonese, Welsh and Antiguan ancestry, the Kanneh-Masons would have faced multiple hurdles in making good in the White-European dominated classical music sphere. However their emergence was not the result of  “affirmative action” but rather pure talent given the right opportunities and platforms to take flight and soar. Running alongside them is Britain’s first mixed-ethnic professional orchestra Chineke!, which has also been an inspirational and aspirational journey.

Stewart says, "Go out and buy this book!"


Credit goes to Petworth Festival Director Stewart Collins for posing both pertinent and pointed questions, which Kadiatu replied with a disarming grace and charm. It would seem that this cultured and decorous responses are a million miles away from the anger and aggression of the BLM movement. Watching this interview (and we’ve also ordered the book, arriving within the week!), we are encouraged that there is hope yet in our troubled world of multicultural relations. Thank you, Mrs Kanneh-Mason for helping to make this happen. 


Monday, 26 October 2020

PETWORTH FESTIVAL 2020 / Concert Reviews IV

Thursday 22 October 2020



It is amazing to ponder that the Balkan republic of Montenegro, with a population of just over 600 thousand, can boast the talents of pro footballers Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic, the dear mutual friend of Neil Franks and mine – pianist Boris Kraljevic - and possibly the world’s most popular classical guitarist Milos Karadaglic. He came to Britain as a teenager, studying in the Royal Academy of Music before becoming a recording star and global sensation. His hour-long recital was a world tour of popular guitar repertoire that spanned the entire spectrum of the instrument’s capabilities.


Spanish music came first with a set comprising Granados’ Andaluza (Spanish Dance No.5, also known as a piano piece), Tarrega’s Lagrima (Teardrop, a short piece of quiet reflection and melancholy), Falla’s Dance of the Miller’s Wife (from The Three-Cornered Hat), replete with its vigorous orchestral effects. From the greatest Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos came his five famous Preludes, written for Andres Segovia, displaying a kaleidoscopic range of colours and moods which Milos keenly lapped up.


Keen in exploring myriad aspects of guitarism, there were two transcriptions by Japanese contemporary great  Toru Takemitsu of popular songs: Harold Arlen’s  Over The Rainbow (from The Wizard of Oz) and Lennon-McCartney’s Yesterday. The melodies may be unforgettable to say the least but the harmonies employed were unusual, even exotic, resounding beautifully in Milos’ hands.


The most substantial work on the programme was perhaps the least familiar (except for guitar aficionados), the Italian guitarist-composer Carlo Domeniconi’s Coyunbaba Suite. The work is unusual as it requires special tuning to relive an Oriental mode in the key of C sharp minor, with its four linked movements influenced by Turkish music. Milos cast a hypnotic spell with this mesmerising music, which traversed from quiet contemplation to white-hot passion and ecstacy. The guitar is an instrument which shares the most private and intimate of thoughts, and rarely has it secrets been so trenchantly revealed.  



Friday 23 October 2020




Popular music is so ubiquitous that you recognise the songs even if you did not know what they were called. Such were my impressions when tuning in to British-Nigerian singer Patti Boulaye’s personal tribute to legendary American singer-songwriter Aretha Franklin. Aretha’s songs are so well covered that the originals are sometimes forgotten. Patti’s natural ability and enthusiasm is infectious, which translated well for The Queen of Soul’s standards like Think, I Say A Little Prayer, Spanish Harlem, Son of A Preacher Man, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You and Baby I Love You.


Not everything heard this evening was by Aretha. There was Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind and At Last, and Bessie Smith’s Kitchen Man, which are of the similar genre. The less said about the cover of Nessun Dorma (from Puccini’s Turandot), the better. Pavarotti she is not, but at least Patti did it her way. Far more convincing was Dat’s Love or the Habanera from Carmen Jones (Bizet’s opera from the hood), which was more her kind of thing. Best of all was Amina from Patti’s musical Sun Dance which simply oozed the African vibe. Patti was ably accompanied by music director Alan Rogers who manned all the keyboards and extra sound effects.


The bewitching hour closed with more Aretha: Chain of Fools, Save Me and You Make Feel Like A Natural Woman, familiar favourites sealing an incredibly lively show for someone who’s mighty proud of being a grandma. Did someone say she is 66 years old? That is simply astonishing.  



Saturday 24 October 2020





The final concert is this wonderful week at the Petworth Festival was a piano four hands recital by the duo of Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva. Both pianists are the co-directors of the London Piano Festival at King’s Place, an annual event which I must attend sometime during my lifetime, and I even own a couple of their CD recordings. Their Petworth offering was not Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or Rachmaninov’s Suites but a Classical-Romantic affair which made more sense in the space of St Mary’s Church.

Charles Owen waxes lyrical about
Beethoven and Schubert.

Beethoven’s Sonata in D major (Op.6) is an early work in just two short movements. The vigour and brio stirred in his spirit came immediately to the fore, which made interesting contrasts with Schubert’s Rondo in A major (D.951). This was a late work composed in his final year, one blessed with an unremitting congeniality. As rondos go, this was not the usual jolly dance but a gentle portrait of polite Biedermeier sensibilities. The duo, technically adroit but totally sensitive at every turn, gave a most musical reading which can scarcely be bettered.


Then came the substantial Brahms set, opening with his Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann (Op.23, and not Op.9 which is a totally different piece for two hands), based on a late piece written during Schumann’s final throes of insanity. This is the same theme of Schumann’s Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations), but Brahms’ is the far more interesting set, and the duo’s imaginative take sealed the deal. The 16 Waltzes (Op.39) may be considered amateur fodder, but it takes superior musicians to do the myriad subtleties full justice, which was what we got from Charles and Katya.


Charles and Katya could not have had a more
sympathetic page-turner than Neil Franks,
pianophile & Chairman of the Petworth Festival.

To close were four popular Hungarian Dances heard in their original form for piano four hands. Brahms was not a striver for authenticity (unlike Bartok and Kodaly) but he fully understood the Magyar gypsy spirit which comes alive in his 21 showpieces. For the record, the duo performed Nos.1, 7, 6 and 5, which are the best-known ones with all the beloved tunes. As they say, all good things must come to an end, but this had been a most enjoyable week of music, and the 2021 Petworth Festival cannot come any sooner!