Monday, 17 September 2018

THE STORY OF SINGAPORE / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (15 September 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 September 2018 with the title "Music that tells the Singapore story".

What is Singaporean music? That question begged to be answered again at this Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) concert conducted by Yeh Tsung, commemorating the 95th anniversary of Chinese newspapers in Singapore with the founding of Nanyang Siang Pau in 1923.

Opening the evening was Wang Chen Wei’s The Sisters’ Islands, which has become a classic example of Nanyang music. Employing the pelog scale, the sumptuously orchestrated symphonic poem based on an old Malay legend was highly narrative, with significant solos for dizi, zhonghu and at its climax, the blast of a giant conch shell blown as a wind instrument.

There were two world premieres from SCO’s two most recent composers-in-residence. Both were played to projected montages of Singapore history from Singapore Press Holdings’ vast photograph archive. Eric Watson’s As The River Flows mused on the history of the Singapore River, from idyllic beginnings to pollution and grime, its clean-up and eventual gentrification. The music followed that trajectory as visuals transformed from black and white to brilliant colour.

Law Wai Lun’s The Stories Of Singapore – Singapore’s Press History delved on Chinese headline news, including the Japanese Occupation, independence from Malaysia, the SARS outbreak, to swimmer Joseph Schooling and violinist Chloe Chua’s world-beating triumphs. Dramatic music gave way to a gliding waltz before a valedictory march closed the proceedings.

To lighten things up, there were two medleys of Xinyao (Singaporean mandopop) by Chen Jiaming, orchestrated by Phang Kok Jun, and sung very idiomatically by Chriz Tong and Allan Moo. The projected accompanying lyrics gave the feeling of the audience eavesdropping on some high class karaoke session with songs like Like A Swallow, Moonlight In The City, Gone Too Far and Foolish Hearts.

The evening’s big work was Law’s Ode To Singapore, a choral symphony composed for the SG50 celebration in 2015. Featuring the Singapore Press Holdings Chinese Choir and SOKA Chorus, it was more eclectic than its Beethovenian title suggested. Following an stirring a cappella choral Prelude, Fight And Strive sounded like a highly dramatic confluence of the Yellow River Cantata, Carmina Burana and Lord Of The Rings music, sung in Chinese.

The Song Of Singapore that followed was a happy hymn with a big melody, extolling the nation’s inexorably progress into the First World. However the lyrics by Pan Cheng Lui, despite their honest intention, were banal and laughable in its English translation. Take for example, “HDB dwellings beckoning us home / NEWater offering peace of mind / The aroma of Kopi warms the hearts / Raise our cups to peace and prosperity for one and all,” and one gets the drift.

The finale was a sung recitation of the National Pledge, concluding with a rousing, Sing, Singapore! / Majulah Singapura / Sing to our brighter tomorrow!” So lusty and proud was the performance by the choirs and orchestra that it was hard to doubt their graft and commitment. Good or bad, inspired or indifferent, Singaporean music needs to be heard.   

TOY TOY TOY! / re:Sound with Margaret Leng Tan / Review

Review: Concert
re:Sound with Margaret Leng Tan
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Friday (14 September 2018)

This review was published by The Straits Times on 17 September 2018 with the title "Riotous fun with toy pianos".

After feasting on Baroque, Classical and Romantic repertoire in its first two years, Singapore’s only professional chamber ensemble re:Sound dived headlong into 20th and 21st century music with a vengeance. This season’s opener saw the participation of Cultural Medallion recipient Margaret Leng Tan, hailed “Queen of the Toy Piano”. 

It however opened with Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony, a 10-minute banality that delighted in gimmicky effects of rattle, bird whistle, cuckoo call, tambourine and jingles played over the strings. That nonetheless whetted the appetite for mayhem to come, with Tan’s entry to plink on her Schoenhut toy pianos for the rest of the show. She sat on a low stool but still towered over her instruments. 

Opening with solo pieces by UK-based American composer Stephen Montague, she showed what the fuss was all about. It takes a consummate virtuoso to get around the driving tarantella rhythm of Mirabella, and with the help of tape, a gamelan-like orchestral sonority was created in Raga Capriccio, a work based on the repetition of just a few notes.

With four arrangements for toy piano and string quartet by Milos Raickovich, some of avant-garde and new music’s big names were celebrated. Most familiar were the drolleries of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No.3. Tan then played on two pianos simultaneously in Philip Glass’s Modern Love Waltz, carousing to a Spanish-like rhythm. John Cage’s Dream was haunting, building up seamlessly like Barber’s famous Adagio For Strings. Toby Twining’s Nightmare Rag conjured a haunted house feel and with its tribute to The Addams Family theme music, had the audience finger-snapping on cue.

The music got denser with a combo of string, wind instruments and percussion in Erik Griswold’s Gossamer Wings. Its three movements had lightness in texture with the marimba’s timbre complementing that of the toy piano. The final movement saw percussionist Michael Tan thumping it out on a toy drum-set of his own. Michael Wookey’s Coney Island Sous L’Eau employed a bigger ensemble, with a heady reliving of fairground music. The use of siren and thunder effects reminded one of Satie’s surrealist ballet Parade

The concert closed with the full orchestra in Montague’s A Toy Symphony (1999), conducted by the composer himself. This was the world premiere of its 2018 version, specially scored for toy piano part alongside six guest artists deployed to the kitchen department. Joining the fray were the British high commissioner and his wife, several orchestral general managers and community musicians, and veteran comedienne-broadcaster Koh Chieng Mun.

The three movement symphony was premised upon the nostalgia of playing with one’s childhood toys in a musty attic. Highly dramatic horror movie effects ruled the Noisy Toys, Slow Afternoon opening movement, and the audience got a chance to hiss, shush and bird-whistle in the subsequent movements before the procession of Ghost March, Tin Soldiers At Dawn which closed the work with a terrific din. Serious work or not, it completed a smashing evening of riotous fun.  

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE / Yuri Bashmet & Youth Symphony Orchestra of Russia / Review

Yuri Bashmet &
Youth Symphony Orchestra of Russia
University Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Wednesday (12 September 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 September 2018 with the title "Singapore violinist a bright spark".

It is always interesting to hear a youth orchestra from the land that gave the world talents like Kissin, Vengerov and Volodos. Their last names alone will register a stir of recognition, as would Bashmet, founder-director and chief conductor of the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Russia, who also happens to be the world’s most famous violist.

Singapore was the first stop in the 100-strong orchestra’s Asian tour, where it gave a two-and-a-half hour concert. The exhausting programme opened with the Asian premiere of Kyrgyzstan-born Kuzma Bodrov’s Journey Through The Orchestra, a fancy set of variations on Paganini’s popular Caprice No.24. The music traversed through baroque, classical, romantic and contemporary styles with pastiches on Bach, Mozart, Grieg and Prokofiev trotted out like a primer of music history.

The young players were over-stretched by its elaborations, sounding raw and exposed at times, not helped by the venue’s dry and unflattering acoustics. Inexperience also hampered the ensemble while accompanying violinist Tatiana Samouil in Tchaikovsky’s indestructible Violin Concerto, where they were not always in sync.

A former prizewinner at the Tchaikovsky’s International Violin Competition, Samouil exuded a warm and sumptuous tone in a reading that was conducted at a broad and almost leisurely tempo. Only in the vivacious finale did sparks fly, but sounded like a mad scramble towards the end.

The brightest spark of the first half came in 11-year-old Singaporean violinist Chloe Chua’s partnership with Samouil in Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for two violins (RV.522). That the Menuhin Competition winner was able to hold her own, matching every move of a professional four times her age and two heads taller was just stunning. And she looked like enjoying every bit of the outing too.

All doubts about the orchestra’s prowess were dispelled in a stirring and heartfelt performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. This was the composer’s attempt at atonement after being criticised by Stalin for an earlier opera deemed decadent and anti-Soviet. Another failure would have meant the gulag, or worse.

The slashing discords that opened the four-movement work were played with conviction and unanimity of purpose. Soon decibels piled on with a juggernaut of a march, whose sheer volume and stridency was potentiated by the hall. With eardrums pricked and pinned to the wall, one’s full attention was gotten but the pain was certainly worth the effort. The 2nd movement’s irony was less than subtle, deliberately so, but what truly tugged at the heart was the Largo slow movement.

Bashmet yielded a feast of catharsis from the strings, and when one thought the level of pathos could not be bested, a new high was attained. Even the banality of the finale, described in the programme notes as a “triumphal march”, could not disguise the passion displayed all around. True depth of emotion and artistry shines through, especially at knife-point and the threat of death.  


Thursday, 13 September 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, August 2018)

The Nash Ensemble
Hyperion 68094 / ****1/2

This anthology by crack British chamber group The Nash Ensemble features Jewish American composers who also happened to write for the silver screen. Although no film music is showcased, their accessible styles – highly tonal and assimilating popular and folk idioms – were ideal for the quintessentially 20th century medium.

The longest work is Souvenirs de Voyage (1967) for clarinet and string quartet by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), who also wrote the music for Hitchcock thrillers Psycho, Vertigo and North By Northwest. The music is lyrical and lush in the best English pastoral tradition, with clarinettist Richard Hosford doing the honours.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) is represented by the 18 prelude-like numbers from The Gershwin Songbook (1932), with pianist Ian Brown putting the polish on I Got Rhythm, The Man I Love, Swanee and Strike Up The Band. Violinist Marianne Thorsen is the sensitive soul in Four Scenes from Childhood (1948) by Franz Waxman (1906-1967), Oscar-winning composer for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun. The music is surprisingly laid-back for a work dedicated to violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz.

Finally, the transcriptions for cello and piano by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) of the Waltz and Celebration from his ballet Billy the Kid, with cellist Rebecca Gilliver, complete 76 minutes of enjoyable listening. This is 20th century music without tears.

Monday, 10 September 2018

INSTRUMENTAL CONCERT 2018 / Association of Composers (Singapore) / Review

Association of Composers (Singapore)
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre 
Recital Hall
Saturday (8 September 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 September 2018 with the title "12 composers, a myriad of styles".

Exactly how many composers are there in Singapore? The true figure will perhaps never be known. This chamber concert by the Association of Composers (Singapore) featured 12 of them, with none of the usual suspects patronised by the national orchestras. All belong to the Chinese-speaking community and many hail from the pioneer generation of citizens.

All the composers were seated in the
front row of the recital hall.

The works heard may be grouped as pieces for piano solo, erhu or violin accompanied by piano, and string quartet. These displayed a broad spectrum of influences, inspirations and styles, and one may surmise that there is no singular Singaporean way of composition. At least, not yet.

The concert opened and closed with works for erhu and piano, performed by Ng Rui Jun and Irene Law respectively. The huqin’s voice ensured a Chinese feel about them, while the accompanying piano sounded somewhat incongruent with Western harmonies and timbres. A guzheng or yangqin might have made more sense.

Lee Ngoh Wah’s My True Love was a short lyrical romance while Lee Chee Kung’s Erhu Capriccio was the most authentically Chinese-sounding work of the evening. Quek Yong Siu’s Garden Under The Morning Sun was an extended fantasy with the mimicry of birdsong, providing the original meaning to tweeting or twittering. The 3rd movement of Toh Heng Guan’s First Erhu Concerto luxuriated in unusual harmonies and a virtuosic cadenza.

For violin and piano, violinist Siew Yi Li performed his brother Xiao Chun Yuan’s Homeland, which alternated between major and minor keys while engendering a sense of patriotism and nostalgia. Chiew Keng Hoon’s Little Creature delighted in dissonances and jagged rhythms, simulating some flitting stinging insect, while his Fantasy was a true study in the atonal idiom of  the Second Viennese School.

Lian Sek Lin’s Moonlight Song had the hint of bel canto but with offbeat harmonies to unsettle and create tension. Lin Ah Leck’s A Wandering Life was a rhapsodic fantasy in the Chinese idiom culminating in a striding march. Tan Chan Boon’s Ostinatissimo was surprisingly gentle as he employed a slow chordal bass over which the violin fashioned a masterly passacaglia.

Pianist Nicholas Loh, who accompanied Siew, went solo in Xiao’s Tensions, built on an obstinate idee fixe, and hammered out Lian’s Hibiscus Variations, based ironically on a march theme, played fortissimo throughout with a Satiesque sense of irony.

The violin and piano duo of Mac Chang and Elaine Xu contributed Lee Yuk Chuan’s Remembrance and Rondo, contrasting sentimental lyricism with vigorous dance rhythms. Both works conjured the aroma of Central Asia, and the violinist was commended for spicing up the Rondo with Paganinian touches.

The cellist's score of
Frederick Ng's Dance In Harmony.

Two works played by the Melody String Quartet completed the programme. Lee Khiok Hua’s Autumn Scene was a Chinese-styled dance with alternating fast and slow sections, while Frederick Ng Eng Thong’s Dance In Harmony a heady mix of Malay motifs, minimalism, syncopation and counterpoint. Reliving a rowdy Chingay procession, this was arguably the most interesting work, a veritable rojak one might consider quintessentially Singaporean. 

All the composers
and some of the performers.
Composer Tan Chan Boon with his students,
the next generation of Singaporean composers?