Saturday, 3 June 2023



with Orchestra of the Music Makers

Esplanade Concert Hall

Saturday (27 May 2023)




Victoria Concert Hall

Thursday (1 June 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 June 2023  with the title "OMM shines with Elgar, Yevgeny Sudbin fares better in solo recital".

Visiting Russian pianists have over the decades made strong impressions on Singapore audiences. During the 1980s, it was veteran Aleksei Nasedkin in concerto performances with the Singapore Symphony. The nineties and noughties saw Nikolai Demidenko and Dmitri Alexeev in recitals and more concertos. Yevgeny Sudbin, from the next generation, is no stranger here, having made Rachmaninov and Scriabin concerto recordings with the national orchestra.  

Photo: Yong Junyi

In commemoration of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov’s 150th birth anniversary, his very popular Second Piano Concerto was given an airing by Sudbin and the Orchestra of the Music Makers led by Chan Tze Law. Given its familiarity and having recorded it before, it was surprising to see Sudbin perform with a tablet score. A safety net, perhaps. Riding on high passion and flowing Russian juices, a potent blend of heart-on-sleeve melancholy and vulnerability, the performance was on edge throughout.

Photo: Yong Junyi


And then it happened. Sudbin’s entry after the finale’s furious fugato was unusually emphatic but a momentary lapse saw him scrambling to recover. The concerto’s exciting last pages saw a recovery and strong finish, but the copybook had somewhat been blotted. The much less frenetic encore of  Scriabin’s Etude in C sharp minor (Op.2 No.1) was a soothing balm.

Photo: Yong Junyi

The evening’s highest lights came from the orchestra on its own. Glinka’s Ruslan And Ludmilla Overture made for a thrilling opener, bringing to mind SSO’s 2014 BBC Proms debut, but it was a rare performance of Edward Elgar’s monumental First Symphony in A flat major that stole the show.


Photo: Yong Junyi

Conductor Chan is a born Elgarian, one who truly understands the English composer’s direction of nobilmente (nobility) in his music. In the 50-minute long work, once described by conductor Thomas Beecham as the musical equivalent of St Pancras Station (a mighty red-bricked edifice topped with Gothic towers and turrets), sheer grandeur and pomp were brought out with neither trepidation nor apology.

Photo: Yong Junyi
Photo: Ung Ruey Loon

After a respite of four days, Sudbin returned refreshed for his solo recital, reliving repertoire from his most celebrated CD recordings. Opening with Haydn’s Sonata in B minor (Hob.XV1:32), his vision of seriousness balanced with biting wit refuted any notion that the Austrian composer was dry or academic. Mastery of sonority on the modern piano, with liberal use of pedalling, may seem at odds with period instrument practice but it mattered little when the results are aurally alluring.

Photo: Ung Ruey Loon


The best case was made for a selection of six Domenico Scarlatti sonatas, which alternated between slow and fast numbers. His freely added new harmonies and octave doublings enhanced rather than detracted from the listening experience. Although arguably the best part of the recital, piano students will, however, be advised not to follow suit in their associated board examinations.

Photo: Ung Ruey Loon


In Romantic music, Sudbin unleashed the full gamut of keyboard colours. Chopin’s Third Ballade radiated the warmth of sunshine, while in Liszt’s Harmonies Du Soir (Evening Harmonies), the penultimate Transcendental Etude, mysteries of night were gradually revealed, finally climaxing in blazing octaves and chords. The frolicsome spirit of Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse (Isle Of Joy), from opening trills to the final rapturous tumble down the keyboard, was relived in a glorious display of joie de vivre.

Photo: Ung Ruey Loon


Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata (sometimes called Poem Of Ecstasy), while having similar orgiastic leanings, took on a more frenzied and carnal edge. In this his signature piece, Sudbin shone like a man possessed. On the strength of this, he may be said to have inherited the mantle of the late great Ukrainian pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter.

Photo: Ung Ruey Loon

Friday, 2 June 2023



The ARTrio

Library @ Esplanade

Wednesday (31 May 2023)


Talented young musicians abound here where the number of would-be virtuosos will soon become a dime a dozen. It is, however, always refreshing to see youngsters coming to make chamber music together. Where musical rivalries can easily form, it takes something special for talents to pool efforts and expertise in order to collaborate. The newly formed ARTtrio, comprising violinist Jacob Cheng (15 years old), cellist Timothy Chua (13) and pianist Asher Seow (14), made its debut as a piano trio in a chamber concert showcasing both individual and collective talents.


The 45-minute recital opened with Timothy performing two movements from J.S.Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suite No.4 in E flat major. One is first struck by the seriousness in which he approached the Allemande and Courante. He did not strive for a big sonorous tone, instead went for lightness and accuracy of intonation, something more in the spirit of the period instrument movement. The result was both fresh and satisfying.  


Next came Asher in Robert Schumann’s extremely tricky Abegg Variations (Op.1), an early work over-flowing with filigreed passages typical of early Romantic piano writing. On the technical front, he came off very well, confidently skipping through all sorts of harrowing hoops while maintaining a steady rhythmic keel. Finding poetry amid the machinations will be his calling as he grows with this work.


Arguably the veteran of the threesome was Jacob, who performed the finale of Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto in E minor with Cherie Khor as piano accompanist. Its fairy-winged lightness and playfulness found a joyous fulfilment in Jacob’s interpretation, which was a spirited romp from start to end. Now this makes one yearn to hear him in the full concerto, and that will happen in time to come.


Both Jacob and Timothy came together for the well-known Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, a showpiece formed by a tight series of short variations. That the duo got all the notes was a given. More importantly, one senses that both players are actually listening to each other and responding in kind. Subtle cues and nuances were picked up on the spur of the moment and then assimilated into the performance. This is the true essence of chamber music.


All three players were united in Beethoven’s early Piano Trio in B flat major Op.11, also called the Gassenhauer (a nickname alluding to something sung on the streets or gasse) because of its finale’s eminently hummable melody. Serious intent was established in the opening movement, stamping the unison passages with some authority before going on their separate paths. It is clear that effort was made to come together, with each member sublimating their solo parts to become part of a whole.


The slow movement had a lyrical quality well exploited by both string players, attentively accompanied by piano, while the finale’s infectiously tuneful variations (based on the song Pria ch’io l’impegno by one Joseph Weigl) captured a joie de vivre that is all too rare among young people these days. Sometimes it is a serious business to have fun. Despite their youth and relative inexperience, this first effort by the ARTrio was a very promising one, and one looks forward to more music-making of this kind from Jacob, Timothy and Asher.


This concert also marks a closing chapter for Library @ Esplanade, which has been a mecca for all things artistic since 2002 when Esplanade first opened its doors. I have many fond memories of this space, having given pre-concert talks, hosted interviews and recitals, and even occasionally performed on its Cristofori grand piano. A legacy of sorts has come to an end, but the good vibes remain.  

The ARTrio with their younger colleagues,
violinists YooJun Curtis Lee and Yuto Lim. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2023


SEAN GAN Piano Recital

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory 

Steven Baxter Recital Studio

Monday (29 May 2023)


Getting accepted to study at New York City’s Juilliard School of Music is a rare honour, and just a handful or so of Singapore / Malaysian musicians have had that privilege. Pianists Margaret Leng Tan, Nicholas Ong, Nellie Seng and Tengku Irfan, organist Phoon Yu, violinist Loh Jun Hong, conductor Joshua Tan and composer Koh Cheng Jin are among them, a goodly bunch spread over some decades. The opportunity, however, entails a financial burden so onerous that scholarships barely cover, thus crowd-funding becomes necessary. For the talented young Malaysian pianist Sean Gan, native of Seremban (Negri Sembilan), dreams become a reality only when bills are paid.


A joint 1st prize winner of the Artist Category of the National Piano & Violin Competition in 2019, Sean’s unusually adventurous recital opened with Nikolai Medtner’s rarely performed Sonata-Skazka in C minor (Op.25 No.1). Medtner’s music does not reveal its secrets as readily as his contemporaries Rachmaninov or Scriabin, but Sean did well to bring out its themes, typically an elusive melody that gradually reveals itself on the left hand, accompanied by right hand filigree. Syncopations and triplet figurations, especially in the first and third movements, often complicate manners but he mastered these well, as with the slow central movement’s lush lyricism leading to its rapturous climax. More importantly, the fantastic and whimsical spirit of skazki (fairy tales or legends) was upheld through its absorbing ten minutes-or-so.  


Here is a video of an earlier performance of the Medtner:

(1) Nikolai Medtner - Sonata-Skazka, Op. 25 No. 1 in C Minor - YouTube


Completely different was Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Second Sonata (1970) which carried the evocative title Fire Sermon. Seldom has coruscating violence (Bartok and Ginastera come to mind) and reassuring calm been so convincingly juxtaposed, and Sean revelled in its long-held resonances with well-placed chords and splashy tone clusters, where palms and forearms gratuitously obliged. Very good control of the sustaining pedal ensured the music shifted seamlessly between these extremes.


Completing the recital was Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante (Op.22), the only familiar work on the programme. Fortunately, familiarity did not usher in contempt, as the nocturne-like opening basked in lovely cantabile, and the concluding Polish dance of nobility romped home with authority and digital brilliance. Also from the Romantic era was Sean’s encore of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No.12, or Chasse-Neige (Snow Flurries). Going beyond mere notes, this performance showed what the music was about, world weariness foretelling a tragedy to come.


You can sample more of Sean’s artistry in these Youtube videos:


Sean Gan - Singapore National Piano and Violin Competition 2021 (Artist Round 1, 27th Nov) - YouTube 

Tan Yuting / Busoni / Ravel / Chopin: 

Sean Gan - Singapore National Piano and Violin Competition 2021 (Artist Round 2, 30th Nov) - YouTube 

Chopin Piano Concerto No.2:

Sean Gan - Singapore National Piano and Violin Competition 2021 (Artist Finals, 3rd Dec) - YouTube 


Help Sean realise his Juilliard dreams by contributing here:

SimplyGiving: Online Fundraising & Crowdfunding Across Asia 

Monday, 22 May 2023

SIMFONI KERONCONG NUSANTARA / Orkestra Melayu Singapura / Review


Orkestra Melayu Singapura

Esplanade Concert Hall

Friday (19 May 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 May 2023 with the title "Orkestra Melayu Singapura's night of keroncong tunes was music to the ears.


Part of Pesta Raya 2023, Esplanade’s Malay festival of arts, Simfoni Keroncong Nusantara was a veritable showcase of keroncong, a popular musical artform unique to the Malay Archipelago. The name keroncong is onomatopoeic, derived from the strumming sounds of a ukulele-like instrument that originally accompanied its earliest singers.


Keroncong’s origins date from 16th century Java when freed Portuguese slaves or Mardijkers intermarried with locals, creating this art of singing which shares spiritual and inspirational links with Portuguese Fado music. Its history was briefly dealt with at the beginning of the concert by Indonesian singer Andre Michiels, himself a Mardijker descendent, and his trusty ukulele.   


Led by conductor Amri Amin, Orkestra Melayu Singapura (OMS) on this evening comprised mostly Western instruments (violins, cellos, bass, ukulele, guitar, piano and assorted winds including flutes and horns) and percussion with drum-set. Accompanying singers from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, the keroncong numbers ranged from insouciant crooning to full-power vocals.


Common to these songs was a sense of melancholy, with reflection and introspection overshadowing outright joy and exultation. Providing a diversion was a virtuoso solo role for Indonesian violinist Liliek Jasqee, whose Stephane Grappelli-like improvisations were an added delight. Presenting completely in Malay, both hosts, jazz singer Rudy Djoe and television personality Marina Yusoff, were an amiable and engaging presence throughout.


OMS had its own trio of young singers, Hafiz, Sheera and Umairah, who starred in Keroncong Tiga Kota, a song that celebrated the three cities of Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Of the invited singers, both Singaporean Suryana Norddin and Malaysian Jamilah Abu Bakar impressed in their songs, including the former in Sayang Di Sayang (made famous by the late “Queen of Keroncong” Kartina Dahari) and Jampi; the latter in Alunan Biola and the feline-inspired Aksi Kucing, complete with vocalised mews from both orchestra and audience.

Suryana Norddin

Jamilah Abu Bakar

Keroncong veterans also had a field day. Malaysian Dato Yusni Hamid, despite being in her seventies, rolled back the years in her signature song Kau Yang Ku Nanti. Eddy Ali flexed his mellow vocal apparatus for Nasib Malang and Bunga Melor, but the loudest cheers were reserved for heavily silver-sequined Emilia Contessa, whose deeply resounding alto voice, once heard, is unlikely to be forgotten.


Dato Yusni Hamid

Eddy Ali
Emilia Contessa

Her songs included a medley from Akhir Sebuah Impian (the tragic 1973 Indonesian movie she starred in as a mere teenager), Anggin November, and Setangkai Anggerek, a duet with the overmatched Eddy Ali. Nothing she sang was not deeply felt, and that is star quality indeed.


The concert without intermission had overshot its 90 minutes by another 50, but as it was getting better with each song, nobody were leaving their seats. It had to end sometime, doing so with the soloists returning with the evergreen Bengawan Solo, and possibly the favourite Malay song of all time, Rasa Sayang. The spontaneous standing ovation said it all, as the allure of keroncong is not diminishing anytime soon

Tuesday, 16 May 2023

SLO ADULT CHORUS IN CONCERT / Singapore Lyric Opera / Review


Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus

Esplanade Recital Studio

Sunday (14 May 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 May 2023 with the title "SLO Chorus concert offers mixed bag of operatic treats".


One underrated aspect of opera performance is the role of the chorus. Much of the atmosphere and spirit of an opera production is missing if the chorus is absent. Serving to comment on onstage happenings and to stir up audience engagement, what would Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Aida or Puccini’s Turandot be without the chorus?


The Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus has had a storied history since the company’s earliest days, and is still peopled by talented amateur singers, whose love for music (and acting) surpasses all other considerations. Led by conductor Terrence Toh and accompanied by pianist Dale Huang, the 30-strong SLO Adult Chorus performed excerpts from three operas featured in its 2022-2023 seasons.

Photo: Lee Zhi Yu


Its members sauntered in with an air of informality. Waving at the audience, one knew this was not going to be too serious an affair. Champagne was uncorked with choruses from Johann Strauss The Younger’s popular operetta Die Fledermaus, including Ein Souper Heut Uns Winkt (A Supper Beckons Us Today) and Im Feuerstrom Der Reben (In The Firestorm From The Vines), which were delightful. Bruderlein Und Schwesterlein (Little Brothers And Sisters) and the intoxicating finale, O Fledermaus, were included later, and it would have been nicer had the chorus sung these from memory.

Photo: Lee Zhi Yu


The audience also had a foretaste of Pietro Mascagni’s verismo opera Cavalleria Rusticana, set for November, with Gli Aranci Ollezano (The Scent Of Oranges) and A Casa, A Casa (Let Us Go Homewards), a carefree evocation of peasant life during Easter. Despite its relatively small size, the chorus projected well, and captured much of the music’s spirit.      


Opportunities were afforded to no less than 19 singers in a series of arias, duets and ensembles, distending the concert to about 140 minutes. The solos were wildly variable, from bathroom singers to those more than competent, but from these, one exceptional voice stood out.

Photo: Lee Zhi Yu


However, one wondered what possessed a soprano to attempt Puccini’s Nessun Dorma (Turandot), which usually taxes the best of tenors. Another bravely scaled the heights of Bellini’s Casta Diva (Norma), wobbled perilously and blotted fond memories of Diana Damrau’s fine account just a week before.      


Some singers were born to act. Zoey Li’s account of Purcell’s When I Am Laid In Earth (Dido And Aeneas) was so believable one knew she was going to hang herself, while bass Hugo Van Bever’s over-the-top role in Rossini’s La Calumnia (The Barber Of Seville) was pure theatrical buffo.


Tenor Dennis Lin in Jules Massenet’s Pourquoi Me Reveiller (Werther) was the portrait of angst and vulnerability. Stealing the show by a country mile, however, was Fumiko Ogasawara in Bizet’s Micaela’s Air (Carmen), with singing and acting that were exemplary on both counts. She could easily walk into the main casts of any of company’s productions.


Closing the show was the rousing Bell Chorus from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, also scheduled for November. As a showcase and campaign to recruit new members, the revitalised SLO Chorus could not have done a better job.