Thursday, 25 April 2019

MASTERPIECES BY PENG XIU WEN / Ding Yi Music Company / Review

Ding Yi Music Company
Singapore Conference Hall
Sunday (21 April 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 24 April 2019 with the title "A memorable tribute to Father of Chinese orchestra".

Peng Xiu Wen (1931-1996) is hailed as the “Father of the Chinese Orchestra” for his pioneering work during the 1950-60s composing original works and arranging classics for large ensembles of Chinese instruments which we know as the Chinese orchestra. This concert by Ding Yi Music Company, augmented to four times its usual size and conducted by Quek Ling Kiong, was a celebration of Peng’s legacy.

Quek was also the soloist in the opening work Harvest Drums, which he led from behind a phalynx of Chinese drums. A commanding display of the full force of orchestral might was made more impressive by a stunning cadenza of incessant drumming accompanied by just cymbals.

Guest yangqin soloist Zhang Guo Xiang led the next two works, replacing baton with wooden mallets. The first was the familiar Dance Of The Yao Tribe, sounding more raucous and vivid in instrumental colour than its Western orchestral version. Performed with gusto, the skipping and jumping moves continued in Ah Xi Dancing Under The Moon and its vigorous syncopated beat.

Peng’s concerto Unyielding Su Wu saw Singapore Chinese Orchestra member Xu Wen Jing emoting on the zhonghu. Deeper in pitch and mellower than the erhu, the music resounded with a decided melancholy reflecting years of exile which Han dynasty envoy Su Wu spent in the Siberian wilderness. The 24-minute work was rhapsodic, alternating between the poetic and the dramatic, before erupting in unbridled joy upon his return.

After the intermission, huqin exponent Jiang Ke Mei was soloist in two short pieces. The highest-pitched jinghu took centrestage in The Surging Of Clouds, delighting in its nimbleness, delicate and refined timbre. In contrast, the banhu produced a lower-voiced and more robust tone in the rustic Beautiful Traditional Chinese Girl.

The Rising Moon, with pipa flourishes from Chua Yew Kok and guzheng glissandi from Yvonne Tay, played like a cortege on a slow final journey. This elegy-like number was appropriately dedicated to the memory of 89-year-old first generation Chinese pianist and Ding Yi benefactor Elaine Wu Yi Li (inset), who passed away the night before.  

Terracotta Warriors, perhaps Peng’s best-known work closed the concert on a high. There was a cinematic quality to this 22-minute piece of programme music, sounding like a Chinese version of film score music to a cowboy Western. Its festive and ritual drumming, pomp and ceremony, allied to a rambling narrative, made this an aural spectacular that was milked for its overwrought instrumental effects.

The young orchestra responded splendidly to conductor Quek’s direction, and there was more in the tank for four encores. Peng’s versatility was displayed in arrangements of Indonesian song Bangawan Solo and Algerian song Damu Damu, while Zhu Jian’er’s Days Of Emancipation (Fanshen De Rizi, parading all three soloists) and the popular Hua Hao Yue Yuan (Full Moon Beautiful Flowers) rounded up a memorable tribute to a master of Chinese music.   

CD Review (The Straits Times, April 2019)

L’Attaque Du Moulin – Suite
Barcelona Symphony / DARRELL ANG
Naxos 8.573888 / ****1/2

It is likely that operatic composer Alfred Bruneau (1857-1934), a contemporary of Puccini and Elgar, is hardly known outside of his native France. He was credited for introducing verismo into French opera, substituting mythical and historical characters with modern-day personalities which contemporary audiences could better relate to. This ground-breaking album brings together over an hour of orchestral excerpts from his little-known and almost-forgotten operas. 

A 22-minute suite comes from L’Attaque Du Moulin (The Attack On The Mill, 1893), a “lyric drama” inspired by a short story by Emile Zola. The highly evocative music brings to mind the orchestral music from Italian verismo composer Pietro Mascagni’s familiar Cavalleria Rusticana

Even more ambitious is the ballet La Legende De L’Or (The Legend Of Gold) from Messidor (1897), just over half an hour long, which displays influences of the German Richard Wagner, specifically music from his Ring cycle. Two short preludes from Messidor and Nais Micoulin (1907) make interesting fillers.

Darrell Ang and the excellent Barcelona Symphony give fine and idiomatic performances, for which attention to orchestral detail is not spared. One will be hard-pressed to find better recordings this obscure but thoroughly worthy music.   

Saturday, 20 April 2019

MAESTRO CHOO HOEY / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Portrait of Choo Hoey (The Straits Times)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (18 April 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 April 2019 with the title "Maestro Choo Hoey charms at SSO's 40th anniversary bash".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s 40th anniversary celebrations continued with a concert led by founding Music Director Choo Hoey, also the orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus. 40 years ago, the Sumatra-born, Singapore-raised and London-trained conductor helmed the orchestra’s inaugural concerts in an air of anticipation but uncertainty with regards to its long term viability.

SSO’s existence is no now longer in doubt. This was largely due to Choo’s pioneering work and hard graft, and this concert was a microcosm of his musical convictions and philosophies. A specialist of 20th century music, he fearlessly championed composers like Stravinsky, Bartok and Shostakovich, then considered esoteric to local ears. He also introduced to Singapore young talents including the likes of Lang Lang, Jin Li and Di Wu when they were mere teenagers.

Stravinsky’s symphonic poem Song Of The Nightingale from 1919, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, ushered the evening to strains of full-blown Chinoiserie. The unrelenting busyness and apparent chaos of its opening, full of biting dissonances and complicated by snarling cross-rhythms, were well handled.

The punchy incisiveness of each beat in this ballet-like score were matched by excellent solos from flute, oboe, violin and trumpet, each representing characters in the story, including live and mechanical songbirds. Choo’s sprightly leadership, a rebuke to his 85 years, was key to the music’s inexorable sense of direction.      

He was also more than quadruple the age of the soloist for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.4, 19-year-old Chinese prodigy He Ziyu, a student at the Salzburg Mozarteum. That the pared-down orchestra was sympathetic partner to the youngster was a given. Without mollycoddling soloists, Choo and his charges provided light and transparent accompaniment for He’s confident and bright tone to shine through.

His playing was tasteful, notwithstanding the somewhat romanticised cadenzas, and the crystalline beauty came through best in the graceful slow movement. The finale was a portrait of restraint and good teaching, with further virtuosity unveiled in his encore, Ruggiero Ricci’s quiet but freakishly difficult transcription of Tarrega’s guitar classic Memories of the Alhambra.     

Bartok’s early Orchestral Suite No.1 of 1905 will not be classed as a quintessential work by the Hungarian modernist composer. Although derivative in content and inspiration, its five movements nevertheless require a firm hand in guiding and shaping its Wagner-Straussian agenda.

The 1st movement’s opening march was rousing and rowdy, coloured by Hungarian folk influences. Darker in mood was the 2nd movement, characterised by a fine cor anglais solo and impassioned string playing. Also making a mark were the clarinet in the 4th movement and violin solos by Co-Concertmaster Lynnette Seah, the orchestra’s first-ever leader in those heady 1979 evenings at Singapore Conference Hall. Rolling back the years, nostalgia and the poignancy engendered were not hard to fathom.   

More importantly, Choo got the orchestra to do what he desired, projecting a clarity and vividness that made the trite music sound relevant, even vital. That is the true measure of a maestro. 

The maestro with leader Lynnette Seah,
just like in the old days.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

MEMORIES OF 2055 / TO Ensemble / Review

Review: Concert
TO Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Friday (12 April 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 April 2019 with the title "Rapturous sax-playing conjures memories of bygone age".

The year is sometime in a dystopian future. An artificial intelligence consciousness called HAL 2055 presents memories of Earth that transpired before the 2045 cataclysmic event referred to as the Singularity. As end-of-days plots beloved by TO Ensemble go, this one had to be the least convoluted.

Local composer and jazz pianist Tze Toh’s latest conception does away with jaded personalities, decrepit cities, digitally-created audio films and sob stories of past concerts, focusing instead on pure music.

Even his ensemble has been pared down to just five players, a far cry from the more ambitious days of Tze N Looking Glass Orchestra, the ensemble’s former guise. Then, the group had a body of strings, winds, percussion and even Chinese instruments. Now, it is just founding members Toh, Carnatic violinist Lazar T.Sebastine and saxophonist Teo Boon Chye, augmented by soprano Izumi Sado and newcomer violinist Loh Jun Hong of More Than Music fame.

This economy of forces worked well through the concert’s seven movements, titled and untitled. In its opening Awaken / Descend, there was a Debussyan touch when Toh’s piano mused on a series of whole tones, a short prelude before Sebastine’s violin entered with melodies inflected by portamenti (slides). This gave the music an exotic quality going beyond its Indian tuning system.

Loh’s Western violin had a more conventional and supporting role but he soon got into the spirit of things. Sado’s wordless melismata was haunting and siren-like, floating effortlessly over rhythmic ostinatos by piano and computer-generated loops. The star of the show had to be Teo’s improvisations on both alto and tenor sax, conjuring reminiscences of a bygone age. This was the rapturous kind of jazz typically inhabiting smoky parlours and joints, rather than spiffy concert halls.

Eschewing the dark-edged and pessimistic tone of TO Ensemble’s previous efforts, the music projected a sense of hope, if anything by recycling nostalgic thoughts. Hence the prominence of memories in the concert’s title. In the movement entitled Memories, a vigorous minimalistic rhythm and frenetic pace dominated, signalling the awakening of myriad senses.

In Child, the Western violin ushered in the Indian violin, forwarding the idea that different children lived separate lives and hence had different memories. For Machine Sunrise, tenor sax and tape provided a dream-like state where the pervasive mood of melancholy ironically drew the loudest applause from the small but clearly-enthralled audience.

Performing for about 55 minutes without an interval, the movements shifted from the darker key of B minor to the sunny G major. With that, the mood also became palpably upbeat. The final two movements played out like a glorious update of the baroque chaconne, an antique dance formed by short variations built over a steady ground bass.

With time to spare, the quintet offered an extended encore – improvised on the spot - clueing the listeners into the finer points of jazz.  

Thursday, 11 April 2019

INTERSECTIONS / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Tuesday (9 April 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 April 2019 with the title "Ethereal beauty meets harmony".

There are good reasons why Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in the National University of Singapore is known as “Asia’s International Conservatory”. Its students and staff are a good representation of the world’s diverse cultures, and despite being an educational institution of Western classical music, projects the feel of  “East meets West” in its pursuits.

The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra’s pre-tour concert, led by its British Principal Conductor Jason Lai, also proudly paraded that internationalism. As if commemorating the bicentenary of Raffles’ acquisition of Singapore as a Crown Colony of the British Empire, the programme was for a large part English but showcased significant homegrown talent.  

Courtesy of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis, written for only strings, opened the concert on an ethereal high. The ensemble was subdivided into three “choirs”, each with separate parts, but together they coalesced with a vast cathedral-like sonority that belied its relatively modest size. With one voice, this string chorus radiated waves of warmth and burnished beauty.  

Standing out were the quartet of soloists, led by violist Wei Jun-Ting and violinist Kong Xianlong, which formed a concertino group as if playing in a baroque concerto grosso. This concept of stand-alone voices backed by a larger body of musicians also extended into young Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi’s Concerto For Erhu, Zhongruan, Percussion and Ensemble, which received its world premiere.

Courtesy of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory

This quasi-impressionist work harnessed woodwinds and brass, hitherto unused in this concert, as backing for three soloists playing Chinese instruments. Likie Low (erhu), Sulwyn Lok (zhongruan) and Yuru Lee (Chinese drums and marimba) were all conservatory students, majoring in  composition, audio arts and sciences and percussion respectively. This could have been a recipe for balance disasters, but Chen’s deft scoring ensured each instrument maintained its own voice amid spirited accompaniment, besides coming together for precious brief moments.

Courtesy of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory

Despite the work not sounding overtly Chinese in idiom, the Confucian principle of  “San ren xing”, or journey of three persons, was applied. Here, each traveller benefits from the wisdom of the others, and to these ears, the unusual combo of erhu and marimba seemed to effect the greatest harmony. 

After the intermission, William Walton’s Violin Concerto was given a rare airing with Qian Zhou, the Conservatory’s Head of Strings, as impressive soloist. Written for Jascha Heifetz, the 1939 work fused technical dare-devilry, unabashed Romanticism with 20th century accents. Bittersweet melodies in the 1st movement were the perfect foil for the witty and mercurial scherzo.

Qian dealt these wide shifts of dynamics with much flair, besides evincing a firm, robust tone and impeccable intonation. Just as importantly, Lai’s young charges coped well in these capricious mood swings, alternating bracing sarcasm with disarming sentimentality. On this form, the conservatory orchestra is set to do the nation proud in its coming visit to South Korea.    

CD Review (The Straits Times, April 2019)

Prima Facie 084 / ****1/2

Does the musical world need more recordings of Frederic Chopin’s piano music? If your answer is “No”, then think again, as the Cardiff-based Scottish pianist Kenneth Hamilton makes a persuasive case of listening to Chopin differently, based on his research of historical performances. Even his ordering of the pieces is unusual. Every major work is prefaced by one Prelude. These short pieces, originally conceived to precede longer pieces, can now be heard in context.

The nocturne-like Prélude in C sharp minor Op.45, often played as a stand-alone piece, is heard before the “Funeral MarchSecond Sonata (Op.35) in B flat minor. These two keys are harmonically related, and the ear perceives the movements as almost seamless. 

In the Funeral March proper, the inclusion of bass octaves makes it sound doubly harrowing. His later inclusion of the stormy Prélude in E flat minor (Op.28 No.14) is canny too, serving as a belated echo to the sonata’s eerie finale, once described as “wind blowing over the graveyard”.    

Hamilton’s view of the Third Sonata in B minor (Op.58) is short-winded by omitting the 1st movement repeat, the perfect antithesis of Lang Lang’s intractable reading. In the “HeroicPolonaise in A flat major (Op.53), he plays Ferruccio Busoni’s amplifications in the galloping octave episode, creating an over-the-top and thunderous effect. 

Finally, he performs Franz Liszt’s own elaboration of Chopin’s Polish song Moya Pieszczotka (Mes Joies or My Joys) as remembered by Liszt student Bernhard Stevenhagen on a piano roll. This is Chopin heard through new ears indeed.  

Monday, 1 April 2019

UNPARALLELED CHARM / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (30 March 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 April 2019 with the title "Pondering nature and universe in aural feast".

In this concert led by its Resident Conductor Quek Ling Kiong, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra performed six works, including two world premieres and two Singapore premieres. All conceived for Chinese instruments, there were neither arrangements nor transcriptions in sight, making for an aural spectacular greater than the sum of its parts.

Taiwanese composer Liu Wei-Chih’s The Calling From The Distant Hills opened with an evocative  paean to nature, based on simple Hakka melodies sung across the countryside. An erhu solo was the call of the wild. With Bartok’s mysterious world of night music relived, this built to a colourful and raucous climax.

Sabahan Simon Kong Su Leong’s Nocturnal Bamboo (World Premiere) used solo dizi as a lyrical and virtuosic vehicle through its musical “night safari”. A true work of Nanyang music, Indo-Malayan motifs and rhythms dominated. While there were moments when Lim Sin Yeo’s dizi was nearly submerged by dense orchestral textures, its inexorable procession was hard to resist. 

Kuala Lumpur native Chow Jun Yi’s Kampung And The City (Singapore Premiere) took the form of a travelogue, beginning with a slow crawl through open pastures as morning stirred. Tempo and volume were soon upped with percussive ostinatos as the landscape transformed into a urbanised one. The rapturous feel of a fast ride in a fast machine was in the exuberant manner of American minimalist John Adams.

Chinese composer Kong Zhi Xuan’s Trace Of Singapore’s Brilliance (World Premiere) was commissioned in 2018 as part of The Stories Of Singapore, works accompanying moving images also featuring pieces by Eric Watson and Law Wai Lun. This 7-minute piece was a witty natural history documentary, sympathetically capturing the flora and fauna of Sungei Buloh and Bukit Timah nature reserves.  

If the preceding four works were planted on terra firma, the concluding two pieces pondered on the universal and metaphysical. Chinese composer Wang Yun Fei’s Infinite Nothingness (Singapore Premiere) could be viewed as a high point of the concert, inspired by Chinese Taoist philosophy encompassing everything and nothing simultaneously. 

Erhu exponent Duan Aiai was obliged to traverse extremes of dynamics, from serenity to hyperactivity, and from beatific to chaotic. The work unfolded like an epic, culminating like a dance of celestial bodies. Coming back to earth, Duan and earlier soloist Lim performed an encore: a popular Jiangnan shizhu melody, harmoniously blending silk and bamboo.    

SCO Composer-in-Residence Law Wai Lun’s often-performed The Celestial Web completed the programme. In this purely orchestral version, all narration and chorus were eschewed, enabling listeners to focus wholly on the music.

Its opening was a knowing tribute to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Instead of the vigorous Ode To Joy, Law’s big melody was a gentler and more subdued one, with the essence of Schiller’s ode to the brotherhood of man retained. The incorporation of the bianzhong (bronze chime bells) at its climax was a quintessentially Chinese touch, but possessing a universal message nonetheless.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, March 2018)

Deutsche Grammophon 4835057 (8 CDs) 

This edition of eight discs follows in the series of box-sets highlighting great recordings and symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra through the decades. Instead of obviously popular piano concerto recordings, it opts for variety and several surprises. 

The earliest recording dates from 1953 and 1954, with almost-forgotten Hungarian pianist Andor Foldes performing both of Liszt’s concertos and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto (Leopold Ludwig conducting). Despite monaural sound, these are commanding and memorable readings.

Also unexpected but enjoyable are Mozart’s Concertos for Two and Three Pianos with the Labeque sisters and conductor Semyon Bychkov, who doubles as the third pianist. Great pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim appears in both Chopin concertos with Staatskapelle Berlin (directed by Andris Nelsons) in somewhat stolid live performances from the 2010 Ruhr Piano Festival, which does not exactly qualify as being “in Berlin”.

The truly great classic disc here is Emil Gilels’ towering and majestic take on Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto (with Eugen Jochum), with Brahms’ Seven Fantasias Op.116 as a generous bonus. Geza Anda and Herbert von Karajan contribute the popular tandem of Schumann and Grieg, while Maurizio Pollini and Claudio Abbado account for Beethoven’s Third and Fourth Piano Concertos (the latter with Beethoven’s rarely-heard alternative cadenza).

Li Yundi’s finest DG recording is also here, coupling Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, led by Seiji Ozawa in 2007. Not to be left out, Martha Argerich is imperious in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, her 1994 account with favourite partner Abbado. The filler is Tchaikovky’s Nutcracker Suite in a slick two-piano arrangement by the late Cypriot pianist Nicolas Economou, also the second pianist. For piano-fanciers, this classy compilation is manna from heaven.

Monday, 25 March 2019


Jeremy Chiew (Viola) et al
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (23 March 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 March 2019 with the title "Viola takes centre stage with agility".

If there is one person in Singapore who has championed the cause of the viola more than any other, that would be Jeremy Chiew. His sheer single-mindedness has resulted in an unprecedented series of concerts edging the seemingly unglamourous instrument, often the butt of musicians’ jokes, firmly into the limelight.

His latest viola showcase, lasting an hour without intermission, was filled with rarities. Under dim lighting, he opened with an Etude by Italian composer Bartolomeo Campagnoli, cast in the form of theme and variations. Exhibiting a wide and sonorous tone with much agility to match, he later explained that this was his encore for the concert.

A soft-spoken person with an understated and droll sense of humour, it was not altogether clear whether he was playing a joke on the audience or not. Nonetheless the hall lighting came on for two sets of songs with obliggato viola parts. First was English composer Benjamin Dale’s lovely setting of Come Away, Death from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Pondering on the melancolic course of true love was tenor Adrian Poon, of Sing Song Club fame, who emoted longingly above Muse Ye’s piano accompaniment. Poon and Chiew alternated their parts and never the twain did their plaints meet.

More integrated were voice and viola in Adolf Busch’s Three Songs Op.3a, about more love, sadness and solitude, sung in German. Viola filled in the parts where the voice fell silent besides providing counterpoint and counter-melodies in these retiring and probing numbers.

The Busch songs were sandwiched by two solo Fantasias by Georg Philipp Telemann, originally for violin, performed on baroque viola by Taiwanese violist Amy Hsu. She gave a short spiel on her period instrument, which was smaller than its modern counterpoint, had neither chin nor shoulder rests, and utilised gut instead of metallic strings. The latter, she explained, was the reason why such instruments were so difficult to tune.

The two contrasted Fantasias, in B flat minor and G major, provided ample display on the techniques used for these early pieces. The sound was mellower and more intimate, but equally expressive in slow dirge-like slow movements and faster dance pieces. And she was right, maintaining pitch and intonation was a challenge.

The longest work on the programme fell to Chiew, who returned in Johann Hummel’s Potpourri Op.94, which was a showy fantasia on popular operatic tunes by Mozart and Rossini. Predating similar potboilers by violin phenomenon Nicolo Paganini, Hummel’s was no less virtuosic but none of its hair-raising diablerie seemed to faze Chiew, who was commandingly secure throughout.

Having already expended his encore piece, Chiew departed the stage but lent his modern viola for Hsu’s own solo encore. That was a moving arrangement by Toshio Hosokawa of Handel’s popular aria Lascia Ch’io Pianga from Rinaldo, proving that whatever the human voice can do, the viola could do even better.