Monday, 17 February 2020


KUN-WOO PAIK Piano Recital
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (14 February 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 February 2020 with the title "Schumann afresh".

There has been no composer with a more tumultuous life than Robert Schumann (1810-1856). The epithet Romantic wholly applies to the German, whose love life, trials and tribulations was often stranger than fiction. That was the basis for celebrated Korean pianist Kun-Woo Paik’s all-Schumann recital, fortuitously held on what today’s romantics know as Valentine’s Day.

Even the fear of Covid-19 virus transmission did not deter a sizeable audience (including many Koreans) from witnessing Paik’s marvellous two-hour long show which was substantially expanded from its original programme. The selection encompassed very early to very late works, familiar pieces and rarities, from the technically simple to ferociously virtuosic, with a multitude of nuances captured within.

Schumann’s very first opus was Abegg Variations (Op.1), based on the five notes in the name of an early romantic interest. Encumbered with the fussy filigree which obsessed early Romantic composers, Paik easily overcame relentless note-churning without losing the thrust of its melodic interest. Equally note-laden was his Toccata (Op.7), a notorious finger-twister which could have easily descended into vacuous machine-gun rapid fire. Again, his prodigious fingers were fully in service of the music.  

Between the barnstorming were five Album Leaves from Bunte Blätter (Colourful Leaves, Op.99), character pieces traversing varied moods and shades of disposition. The first, which famously became the theme for Brahms’ Schumann Variations, was a study of calm and melancholy. Turbulence, geniality and pensivity followed before the set closed with hymn-like lyricism.

By now, one would have discerned that Schumann was a miniaturist non pareil, and the entire recital consisted of suites with multiple short movements. Waldeszenen (Forest Scenes, Op.82) comprised nine such pieces, exploring a world of woodland rusticity and mysticism. It was the latter that found most traction in Verrufene Stelle (Haunted Place) and Vogel Als Prophet (The Prophet Bird), slow numbers which were quietly haunting.

The two most frequently-heard works were Arabeske (Op.18) and Papillons (Op.2), which can often be tainted with over-familiarity. Not so, in Paik’s case. With multiple and quixotic shifts in dynamics and mood in both, surprises may be expected in each and every turn. These he negotiated with a sense of wonder and fantasy, such that the music always sounded fresh and newly minted.

This sense of discovery applied to the least familiar works, Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces, Op.111) and Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn, Op.133), conceived near the close of Schumann’s tragic life which ended in an insane asylum. The former were championed in concert by the great Vladimir Horowitz during his late years, and Paik’s view was every bit as vivid.

The latter are elusive and cryptic, but he unlocked their secrets through a near-seamless emotional arc spanning all possible cerebral and visceral experiences. His encore was a continuation of this poetic and lyrical bent: the Aria slow movement from Schumann’s First Sonata (Op.11), dedicated to his beloved Clara, whom he later married. Such is the measure of a true artist.  

Monday, 10 February 2020


Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (8 February 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 February 2020 with the title "Chinese instruments meet old black and white Western films".

Following the success of Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s concert accompanying The Goddess (starring Ruan Lingyu) at the 2014 Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts, the same formula was applied to four Hollywood silent classics from 1910 to 1923. The team of SCO Composer-in-Residence Law Wai Lun and his Hong Kong-based nephew Lincoln Lo returned to craft original scores, which were performed under the baton of Yeh Tsung.

The idea of Chinese instrumentation accompanying a Western film fortunately produced no jarring discrepancies between visual and aural experiences. Although the music could have easily been performed by a western symphony orchestra, the overall effect was one of seamlessness through its almost 90-minute duration.      

The concert opened with a short and lively Overture encapsulating the legacy of silent movies. Footage from period cinema (both Western and Asian) were included, as well as scenes from 1920-30s Singapore obtained from British Pathe and Penn Museum archives.

There is a period charm to the four black and white moving pictures, even if plotlines were simplistic, hopelessly naive and devoid of nuances between black and white (representing vice and virtue respectively). The only objection would be the odious racial stereotypes commonplace a century ago, such as portraying orientals and blacks as lackeys, or gypsies as plain evil. Of course there would be a certain tramp to save the day.   

Charlie Chaplin starred in two of the movies, The Adventurer (1917) and The Vagabond (1916), which opened and closed the show. But how differently these were treated. The former revelled in   slapstick and farcical Keystone Cops-like chases, with a jazzy, dancehall-music filled score which induced the most titters and laughs from the audience.

The latter was a romance, where boy saves girl from slavery, with tender moments involving piano and low strings, and a big melody to cap a climax. Did one detect a faint whiff of Nino Rota’s Romeo and Juliet theme, even when Tchaikovsky’s would have been the more appropriate?  

Quite different was Frankenstein (1910) starring Augustus Phillips, supposedly a thriller inspired by the Gothic horror novella. The music became more dramatic, with pitched percussion and piano reliving haunted house scary effects while weepy erhus added a further layer of suspense. Quite hilariously, the monster came across as almost loveable, like some overgrown house pet.

Buster Keaton was the hero in Rome from The Three Ages (1923), its centrepiece being a “race-to-the death” within a Coliseum-like arena. For the momentous occasion, loud martial music with vocalisations from the musicians filled the air, in the showdown between the villain’s horse-drawn chariot and Keaton’s dog-sled. Guess which one won.

Even if the movies’ content had little to do with Chinese culture, SCO’s contribution to Esplanade’s Chinese-themed festival was still a significant one. To showcase Chinese instruments as a versatile force, capable of transcending cultural barriers, was the name of the game. 

Tuesday, 4 February 2020


Tony Yike Yang Piano Recital
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (2 February 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 February 2020 with the title "Firebird takes flight on 88 keys".

Esplanade’s Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts has presented Chinese pianists in solo recitals over the years, including Chen Sa, Chen Jie (both China) and Tiffany Poon (Hong Kong), the last of whom garnered a sellout last year. This year’s offering was prize-winning Canadian-Chinese pianist Tong Yike Yang, a Toronto resident who is now pursuing dual-degrees in economics and music in Harvard University and New England Conservatory respectively.

Quite unusually, his recital began with the Eighth Novelette (Op.21 No.8) of Schumann, a short piece with a profusion of ideas that became almost difficult to follow. Yang exuded much passion and lyricism while making sense of its narrative flow.

More familiar was Chopin’s Third Sonata in B minor (Op.58), a warhorse in four movements.  Again, solid technique was allied to good musical taste as he negotiated digital complexities of the first two movements well. Ironically it was in the technically less demanding slow movement when things became unstuck.

For all of Esplanade’s strenuous warnings against unauthorised photography, the arts centre had to employ an official photographer who failed to silence his digital camera. Thus the quietest bits of the Largo was subjected to incessant pings and clicks as he snapped away with gusto. Whether these distracted Yang and caused him to falter was moot, but after that, the hitherto immaculate playing was no more.

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (Op.27 No.2) was not supposed to be the German’s most difficult work, but Yang’s effort made heavy weather of it. Whatever mystery that the opening movement (reminding some poet of moonlight over Lake Lucerne) evoked evaporated like the mist, the dance-like middle movement sounded prosaic, while there was a near collapse in the tempestuous finale.

The only concession to Chinese music came in five selections from Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolour. These short movements included dances and folk music much in the matter of Bartok’s idiomatic piano music. These were performed, wisely, with a score at hand and the vigorous celebratory chords in the final piece, Sunrain, set the stage well for Yang’s final showdown.

In Italian pianist Guido Agosti’s fearsome transcription of three movements from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Yang was able to flex all kinds of musculature to make the orchestral piece come alive on 88 keys. This he succeeded with stunning aplomb, with the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei sweeping the keyboard and taking no prisoners. The bell-like sonorities of the Finale also came off with clangorous clarity.

Yang greeted the applause with short, quick bows and polished off the encore of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu like a young man in a hurry. He even had the chutzpah of improvising a glissando when a descending scale almost came off the rails. A hot-shot talent for sure, and he even has economics to fall back upon should he ever tire of the stage.

Photographs by the kind courtesy of Esplanade Theatres On The Bay.

Monday, 3 February 2020


Haven't decided what to do on Valentine's Day? Here's a great idea: spend a Romantic evening with a loved one in the company of world-renowned Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik as he performs the music of Robert Schumann.

KUN WOO PAIK Piano Recital
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday 14 February 2020, at 7.30 pm
Tickets available at SISTIC:
(click on the link above)

His programme:

ABEGG Variations, Op.1
Bunte Blätter, Op.99
Toccata in C major, Op.7
Waldszenen, Op.82

This promises to be an evening of fantasy and rapture, brought to you by Altenburg Arts, the brains behind Martha Argerich and Yuja Wang's debut recitals in Singapore.

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 with the title "Excellent solos, outstanding duets and ensemble pieces".

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 with the title "Seductive piano arrangements".

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.