Tuesday, 13 November 2018


Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (9 November 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 November 2018

Who has been the dominant figure of Western opera in Singapore over the last twenty years? That has to be Hong Kong-born soprano Nancy Yuen. Being Artistic Director of the Singapore Lyric Opera and married to SLO Chairman Toh Weng Cheong certainly helped, but that diminishes the feat of keeping herself fit and in good voice since her 1988 debut with the Welsh National Opera in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Her recent casting as Aida in June was a coup of enviable longevity. Her most famous roles have been of teenaged girls in trouble (Cio Cio San, Violetta, Mimi and Liu, just to name a few) and her true age remains an industry secret. While rumoured that she is well into her sixth decade, nobody that age has the right to perform the way she does.   

Her two-hour long concert of operatic bleeding chunks with the SLO Orchestra conducted by Jason Lai provided the clues. She limited the programme to just six roles and was canny not to over-extend herself. One would have loved to hear her Vissi d’Arte (Tosca) and Ritorna vincitor (Aida) but such omissions had to be made.

She began with two arias from Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro, Countess Almaviva’s  Porgi amor and Dove sono, and these were sung with a seamless legato line, the epitome of rococo refinement. Superb control was also exhibited in the short Signore ascolta, slavegirl Liu’s most famous aria from Puccini’s Turandot.

Then she let it rip with coloratura aplomb in Sempre libera, Violetta’s defiant rant from Verdi’s La Traviata. Her mastery of fast running notes in the highest registers without going astray or skipping a beat was to be simply admired, regardless of age or experience.

The longest segment was devoted to highlights from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which included  a purely orchestral intermezzo, the Humming Chorus (with the SLO Choir), a duet and two arias. It was the pure emotional heft displayed in the second aria Un bel di (One Fine Day) that truly tugged on heartstrings.

For a prima donna assoluta’s evening, there was to be no other female singer on stage, Yuen’s limelight was shared only by Korean tenor Lee Jae Wook. One of her most trusted stage partners, he was careful not to steal the show in duets like Parle-moi de ma mere (Bizet’s Carmen), Vogliatemi bene (Madama Butterfly) and O soave fanciulla (Puccini’s La Boheme). Together their blended voices sounded close to perfect.

It was curious to hear the aria Si, mi chiamano Mimi (La Boheme) sung long after the duet it preceded, but that was meant to be an encore, as was the ubiquitous Drinking Song (Brindisi) from La Traviata where the audience was invited to join in. Another curious fact: Nancy Yuen had one costume change less than the jolly master-of-ceremony Marc Rochester, who enlivened the show with a keen sense of humour that kept an otherwise serious evening light and cheery.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, November 2018)

LILY MAISKY (Piano) et al
Deutsche Grammophon 483 5561 / ****1/2

This appears to be merely a compilation album of slow encore pieces, but it comes from the great Latvia-born cellist Mischa Maisky, renowned for his big warm tone and outsized personality to match. 

The titular track is his own arrangement of the Adagietto third movement from Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for cello and harp (played by Sophie Hallynck). Purists might balk at the use of multi-tracking, which sounds like both players being backed by an ensemble of strings, but the effect is magical. 

Equally enjoyable are further slow movements, all transcriptions, of music by Marcello (Oboe Concerto), J.S.Bach (Keyboard Concerto BWV.1056), Tchaikovsky (piano pieces), Massenet (Meditation from Thaïs), Grieg (Solveig’s Song), Scriabin, Mozart and Saint-Saëns. In this family affair, he is accompanied by pianist daughter Lily while violinist son Sascha joins them for Schubert’s passionate Notturno in E flat major.

The last two tracks are live performances involving star power. Maisky is partnered no less by pianist Martha Argerich, violinist Janine Jansen and violist Julian Rachlin in the Andante Cantabile of Schumann’s Piano Quartet. This and the Andante from Brahms’ Third Piano Quartet have the cello wallowing in the big melodies, and Maisky gratefully laps it all up.  

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

DEBUSSY 100: LA MER / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Review: Concert
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (3 November 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 November 2018 with the title "Masterful Debussy interpretations".

The countdown to Shui Lan’s final concerts as Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra has begun. This was his last concert of 2018, one which showcased two of the orchestra’s strongest suits during his 22-year tenure: SSO as champion of contemporary Chinese orchestral music and Debussy interpreter par excellence.

The concert opened with Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No.1, the lightest music of the evening. The familiar Morning Mood saw lovely solos from flautist Evgueni Brokmiller and oboist Hu Qiuzi, while homogeneous strings yielded a chilling hush for Ase’s Death which rose to a passionate climax. Anitra’s Dance skipped ever so seductively while Liu Chang’s bassoon provided the insistent beat to ravings from The Hall Of The Mountain King.

Receiving a Singapore premiere was Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang’s Mount E’mei (2016), a  concerto for violin and percussion inspired by the scenery of Sichuan’s famous highland landmark. The unusual instrumentation reflected a dichotomy of the mountain’s spirituality (represented by Lu Wei’s violin) and rugged physical geography (in Hu Shengnan’s percussion tour de force).

Opening with a soft vibraphone solo, this soon gave way to the violin’s ethereal entry. Apart from early exchanges, both soloists operated within different and separate spheres, allowing each to be savoured on their own terms. Lu’s part had reminiscences of Szymanowski’s otherwordly feel and Vaughan Williams’ pastoral character (The Lark Ascending readily comes to mind), thus providing the music’s more dreamy episodes.

Hu’s role was far more extrovert, and her pants totally suited the need to negotiate long distances between the vast array of instruments, pitched and unpitched. This culminated in an outlandish cadenza involving drums, slung gongs, Tibetan bowls and hanging bells. The work ended on a surprisingly quiet and contemplative mood, which was a sublime touch.

The second half comprised two major works by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), whose death centenary was being observed. Conductor Shui reckoned that the ballet Jeux (1913) was unfamiliar to audiences and thus gave a preamble, introducing its main themes with the orchestra and raising  mirth when discussing the music’s homoerotic content with double entendres.

Euphemisms were probably apt as the music’s cues were elusive for most part. However one knew a game of dance and coy flirtation (besides the purported tennis game) was taking place, even if  eroticism remained deeper in the subconscious.

Needing no introduction was La Mer (1905), perhaps Debussy’s most famous impressionist orchestral work. SSO and Shui are old hands with this favourite calling card, which was conducted completely from memory. As with SSO’s excellent recordings on BIS, the performance was vividly coloured and shaded with the orchestra mastering its various nuances and subtleties with absolute aplomb. The thrilling build up to its final splash was as memorable as anything the orchestra has offered this year.

On a more sombre note, this concert was dedicated to the memory of SSO first violinist Sui Jing Jing, who passed away last week, having served the orchestra for 32 years.   

Concertgoers were invited to sign
in a greeting book to remember
long-serving SSO violinist Sui Jing Jing.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

RAVEL TONIGHT! / The Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

The Philharmonic Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (28 October 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 November 2018 with the title "Ravel showcase of exquisite colour".

The Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lim Yau continued with its Composers Tonight series of concerts with a tribute to the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Ravel was renowned for his skill of orchestration, creating orchestral works of original and exquisite instrumental colour, and all three works on the programme  reflected that gift.

Beginning with the song cycle Sheherazade, with three movements inspired by the tales of the Arabian Nights, the emphasis was on conjuring up an exotic tonal allure. While not quoting Middle Eastern or Asian themes and melodies, the music exuded an aroma of perfumed incense which immediately cast a spell on the imagination.

China-born Soprano Su Yiwen, singing in French the words of Tristan Klingsor (obviously a nom-de-plume, but one with a Wagnerian persuasion), played a large part in the aural magic. Her voice was sufficiently sensuous, and strong enough to carry across the occasionally over-enthusiastic orchestral playing. The opening song Asia set the mood, followed up by excellent solo flute playing which prefaced and closed The Enchanted Flute, and a final tease in The Indifferent One.

Totally different was Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, a work unique that it incorporated Basque influences with those of New World jazz. Malaysian pianist Nicholas Ong was a most persuasive soloist, one who perfectly judged its idioms, pacing and nuances.

Knowing when to act coy, then ratcheting up the temperature in insistent syncopations for the opening movement, and settling down with Mozartian clarity in the slow movement was all part of the game. The exciting prestidigitation of the Presto finale brought down the house, which was rewarded with Ong’s solo encore, the stately Minuet slow movement from Ravel’s Sonatine.     

All through this drama, there were also many taxing solo parts for the orchestral musicians, all of whom readily stepped up to the plate. The harpist had a demanding cadenza of her own and woodwinds, so critical to the music’s sound palette, also were excellent. Even the percussionist who operated the whip (essentially two pieces of wood smartly snapped together) was spot-on.

The concert closed with Bolero, one of Ravel’s most popular works, which he famously declared “a work without music. As repetitious as it might have been, there was no denying the hypnotic power of this infamous crescendo, with solo instruments and various combinations piling on layers of sound over a snare-drum’s obstinate beat.

Visually it was also a spectacle, with a sole percussionist centrestage leading the parade while string players strummed out pizzicato beats like a massed group of guitars. Notably absent was the concert series’ usual master of ceremonies William Ledbetter, but Ruth Rodrigues’ comprehensive and semi-interactive programme notes made up for it, if one was bothered to read. All in all, it was an enjoyable 80 minutes of one’s Sunday afternoon well spent.

Monday, 29 October 2018

OLLI MUSTONEN. PROKOFIEV PIANO CONCERTO NO.2 / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (26 October 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 October 2018 with the title "Controversial pianist provides gripping experience".

The title of Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert only tells part of the story, and should not have been its main selling point. Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen is a divisive figure among pianophiles. He is either regarded a self-indulgent hack or wayward genius. As expected, his performance of Prokofiev’s early but monumental Second Piano Concerto had many points of contention.

There was no doubt Mustonen possessed the facility to overcome multitudes of notes and recreate the brutalist shock and awe that scandalised the work’s first audiences. However his tendency to pick at notes in a detached and percussive manner, and erratically placing accents when least expected, were jarring. With any hint of subtlety or luxury of legato totally purged, the effect was like hearing glass shattering and then walking barefooted on the shards.

Painfully piquing the ears he did in the opening movement’s massive cadenza, the Scherzo’s machine-gun assault in moto perpetuo, and the 3rd movement’s grotesque ballet. There were neither moments of respite for pianist, orchestra nor audience, thus making for a unnervingly gripping experience. After the tempestuous finale’s firestorm closed with a gigantic crash, there were applause and cheers to match. A quaintly accented encore showed Mustonen could also play quietly.

Amid the cacophony was the tireless industry of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, expertly marshalled by Finnish guest conductor Hannu Lintu who held the whole enterprise together. There was also a pleasing symmetry to the rest of concert, which opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini and closed with Sibelius’ First Symphony, both quasi-programmatic in nature and cast in the key of E minor. 

The harrowing journey to Dante’s Inferno was vividly captured by brass fanfares and heaving strings in the Tchaikovsky. The plight of titular character Francesca’s forbidden love with brother-in-law Paolo was excellently characterised by Li Xin’s clarinet solo, his long-breathed opening statement a premonition of the Sibelius to come. The performance was a breathtaking one, with a dramatic close that epitomised both tragedy and heroism in equal measure.

There is no secret that Sibelius’ First Symphony was influenced by Tchaikovsky. The first bars were dominated by solo clarinet, now helmed by principal Ma Yue, and this theme would return again in the finale. In between was music of sweeping passion, with a debt owed to the Russians but the Finn Sibelius finding his own voice.  

How the orchestra could colour such music with the icy chill of the Arctic, and later bask in the warmth of Mediterranean sunshine within a few pages was down to conductor Lintu’s magisterial control of the entire ensemble. Similarly, the 3rd movement’s boisterous dance was a refreshing contrast with the finale’s big and broad melody, one Rachmaninov would have been proud of. The final glorious apotheosis and quiet close, touches of genius and realised with utmost sympathy, made the evening all the more memorable.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, October 2018)

Deutsche Grammophon 479 8756 / **1/2

The Germany-born Menahem Pressler (born 1923) is the “grand old man” of the piano. He was a founding member of the world-renowned Beaux Arts Trio in 1953 and helmed it till 2008. He still pursues an active solo performing and teaching career at the age of 94. This solo album of French piano music, recorded last year, unfortunately does his legacy scant justice.

Almost every item is played at a funereal and lugubrious tempo. Although his touch and pedalling are often exquisite, Claude Debussy’s First Arabesque, Reverie and the titular Clair de lune (from Suite Bergamasque) are so dragged out that one’s patience is tested. 

The same stolidity applies to the selection of five Préludes. In Danseuses de Delphes, the sonorous chords sound strangely detached. Only in the slower-than-slow waltz La plus que lente does his expansive pacing makes perfect sense.    

The recital is completed by a Gabriel Fauré Barcarolle, easily the album’s best track, and two pieces by Maurice Ravel. When Ravel quipped that the princess of his Pavane pour une infante défunte was dead, rather than the pavane, he was probably thinking of such a reading, one which stretches to nearly 8 minutes. A dispiriting showing from a great pianist.      

Wednesday, 17 October 2018


Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday & Sunday 
(13 & 14 October 2018)

This review was published in  The Straits Times on 16 October 2018 with the title "A full measure of what chamber music is about".

Longevity is the enduring quality of Russia’s Borodin Quartet, founded in 1945 and still going strong for over 70 years. Its players have come and gone, with the last founding member cellist Valentin Berlinsky retiring in 2007. Of the Borodin Quartet that last performed in Singapore in 1996, only violist Igor Naidin remains.

Its two concerts, part of the SSO Chamber and VCH Presents series, gave listeners the full measure of what chamber music was all about. Three of its members partnered with Singapore Symphony Orchestra players for two popular quintets on the first evening. Violist Naidin and cellist Vladimir Balshin were joined by violinists Chan Yoong Han and Chikako Sasaki and cellist Ng Pei-Sian for Schubert’s late String Quintet in C major.

Despite the “heavenly length” of nearly 55 minutes, it was a superbly paced performance that breathed freshness, revealing the intimacy of close cooperation all through its four movements. There was nothing to separate Russians and locals in the seamless music-making, from the opening movements’ lyrical musings to more vigorous exertions of the Scherzo and Rondo finale.

Oneness of ensemble also inhabited Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor, where violinist Sergei Lomovsky and violist Naidin played alongside pianist Lim Yan, violinist Margit Saur and cellist Wang Yan. In this music of emotional and dynamic extremes, the temptation to lapse into caricature was resisted. While playing the score straight, the result was a catharsis borne of extreme duress while keeping a straight face. This irony was clearly appreciated by the audience.     

The Borodin Quartet, led by first violinist Ruben Aharonian, was on its own in the second concert, which presented diametrically contrasting halves. Musical sunshine lit up Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet, with its very familiar Andante Cantabile slow movement, where Aharonian’s melodic line soaring above quiet pizzicatos from Balshin’s cello could not have been more tender.

The rest of the work showcased immaculate ensemble, sensitive to myriads of nuances, and finely balanced by an understated virtuosity. The four players could easily have played this, their musical heritage, blind-folded. Hugo Wolf’s brief and jolly Italian Serenade, filled with Mediterranean warmth, was served like an enjoyable encore.

Dmitri Shostakovich with the
original members of the Borodin Quartet

A sugar-coated first half would scarcely have prepared one for the bile of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.15, his final embittered work in this medium. The hall was plunged into near darkness, with the players barely visible through dim lights illuminating their scores. This seemed like the only way to experience the work’s six continuous slow movements, highlighted by painful pauses, pregnant silences and interjected dissonances. One could hear a pin drop amid this blanket of unnerving stillness and unease, so grippingly negotiated by the quartet.

There was nearly a minute of silence before house lights came on with the ensuing applause. Two short Tchaikovsky encores seemed trite and inconsequential, as all present knew all through the music’s unremitting bleakness, they had attended a requiem.     

SSO violinist Chan Yoong Han
and his daughter Chantal meet the Borodins.
SSO violinist Chikako Sasaki
is ecstatic she got to play with the legendary quartet.

The Borodin Quartet also performs at 
The Joy of Music Festival 2018 
Hong Kong

Wednesday (17 October 2018):
Tchaikovsky String Quartet No.1
Wolf Italian Serenade
Shostakovich String Quartet No.15

Friday (19 October 2018):
Haydn String Quartet Op.33 No.1
Shostakovich String Quartet No.9
Shostakovich Piano Quintet
(with Ilya Rashkovskiy, Piano)

8 pm, City Hall Concert Hall
Tickets available at URBTIX