Thursday, 29 August 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, August 2019)

ION VOICU The Decca Recordings
Decca Eloquence 480 7841 (2 CDs) / ****1/2

Those who tuned in to Singapore Broadcasting Corporation’s 92.4FM stereo classical station during the 1970-1980s might remember the name of Romanian violinist Ion Voicu (1923-1997), whose long-playing records were aired in those more interesting and eclectic days of radio. This album brings together the contents of three LPs dating from 1965 to 1973, never previously issued on CD.

Voicu was born into the Romani tradition of violin playing, and was a student of Georges Enesco and later David Oistrakh. This pedigree would account for his playing of refinement and understated virtuosity, which shuns faceless surface glitz and vulgarity. 

The album’s first disc coupling the popular Mendelssohn (E minor) and Bruch (No.1) violin concertos is enjoyable for its directness and simplicity of approach. He is partnered with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Fr├╝hbeck de Burgos.

20th century violin sonatas make up the balance of the 150 minutes, all of which are tuneful and accessible. With French pianist Monique Haas, Prokofiev’s Sonata No.2 (originally for flute) and Debussy’s late Sonata make for fascinating contrasts. The Second Violin Sonata by Darius Milhaud is a delightful rarity, with folk music influences and pentatonic melodies that remind one of Chinese music.

The third album includes a thrilling reading of Ysaye’s unaccompanied Sonata No.5, and has  Romanian pianist Victoria Stefanescu accompanying him in the Second Sonatas of Ravel and Enesco. The Ravel is famous for its Blues second movement (where violin mimics banjo), while the slightly more dissonant and darkly-hued Enesco is a real find. Here is a showcase of violin playing of true distinction.

Monday, 19 August 2019

BENJAMIN BRITTEN A Midsummer Night's Dream / New Opera Singapore / Review

New Opera Singapore
Victoria Theatre
Friday (16 August 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 August 2019 with the title "Fantasy and hilarity rule the night".

It has been 22 years since Benjamin Britten’s operatic setting of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream last played in Singapore. In 1997, Singapore Lyric Opera mounted a production, with a largely foreign cast of singers and conducted by Lim Yau, which remains one of the company’s most remarkable achievements.

Although trailing in authenticity and refinement, New Opera Singapore’s production with a largely local cast, directed by Jeong Ae Ree and conducted by Chan Wei Shing, was nonetheless impressive for its freshness of ideas and ebullience of delivery.

Britten’s adaptation of Shakespeare saw its original five acts reduced to three, with the First Act dispensed altogether. Much of the libretto remained unchanged, thus retaining much of the humour and farce. Its story of fairies, humans and actors (here called rustics), their falling in and out of love, and mistakenly applied “love” juice, made for much fantasy and enchantment.

Soprano Victoria Songwei Li, returning from last year’s triumph in Poulenc’s Dialogues Of The Carmelites, was just as stunning in the coloratura role of Tytania. The range and agility of her voice was matched by an alluring physical presence that was hard to ignore. Coming quite close was actor Dwayne Lau Wei An as the playful Puck, prancing opposite countertenor Glenn Wong as the tyrannical Oberon.

The mortals Helena (sang by Jennifer Lien), Hermia (Rebecca Chellappah), Lysander (Shaun Lee), Demetrius (Kang Mingseong) as subjects of love were also well cast, especially the women. The rustics, comprising Bottom (Sangchul Jae), Quince (Keane Ong), Flute (Adrian Poon), Snout (Samuel Ng), Starveling (Francis Wong) and Snug (David Lee), who were planning a play within a play, provided further comic elements to an already hilarious script.

Although singing and speaking in English, not all the words were clearly enunciated and heard. The Korean singers were at a disadvantage here, made more difficult when wearing the headpiece of an ass. As such, the smart use of surtitles proved all the more vital.

The all-boys choir from Anglo Chinese School (Junior & Barker Road) provided the atmosphere of innocence which Britten sought. Mingling among them were the fairies Jasmine Towndrow (Moth), Lara Tan (Peaseblossom), Melissa Hecker (Cobweb) and Yssela Erquiaga (Mustardseed), youngsters who aquitted themselves with purity and grace.

The set made up from detachable and mobile ramps of different heights, designed by RT+Q Architects, was simple and highly effective. This allowed for clarity of story-telling on different planes besides preventing a cramped stage. Consistent with the company’s penchant for the edgy and slightly risque, there were scenes of cross-dressing (Poon as the awkward bride Thisby) and the hinting of bestiality (woman and ass).

New Opera Singapore has overachieved again, given its small budget that allows for just one major production annually. Next year sees the Singapore premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and expectations already run high.  

All photographs by the kind courtesy of New Opera Singapore.

Friday, 16 August 2019



It took me almost a year to write this blog diary, having wracked my thought processes, beginning in Germany, later in Hong Kong, and finally back home in Singapore, with just a week to spare before my inevitable return to Husum in 2019. Better late than never, so here it is, my brief diary of the 32nd edition.

Its my fourth year in succession visiting Husum (Germany), home of the inimitable Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum Festival, and there seems to be no tiring of this annual pilgrimage into the far-flung peripheries of the vast and seemingly endless piano repertory. “Husum is like a drug” reads an article in the Hamburger Abendblatt by Elisabeth Richter, and guess who the drug references relate to? 

Yes, and there’s a photo of a certain Singapore blogger attired in a Nationalmannschaft outfit emblazoned just below the headline. Guess I’ve become a legitimate minor celebrity in certain parts of North Germany...

Sunday, 12 August 2018

In truth, my Husum journey started in Singapore when the young 24-year-old Clarisse Teo (above) performed a programme of Mompou, Medtner, D’Indy and Alexandrov in a piano recital at Esplanade Recital Studio. Her programme of all local premieres looked exactly like one of those impossible programmes that appear in Husum every summer in August. And her audience of about 180, very quiet, attentive and respectful, was little different from the cognoscenti who beat down the doors of the 16th century Schloss before the seaside town on the North Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein. 

Her upright posture, utter confidence and control, no-nonsense demeanour and unexpected encore (Villa-Lobos) also reminded this listener of a certain M-A.Hamelin. Surely she should someday perform in Husum?

Saturday 18 August 2018

Thanks to British Airways and German Rail (which has of late descended to SMRT standards of normality), everything contrived to make me miss the opening recital at Husum by German pianist Sina Kloke (above). She sounded impressive enough on compact disc, and I was more than happy for her to autograph those albums of music by Enesco and Vaughan Williams.

FABIAN MULLER Piano Recital (7.30 pm)

So my first recital attended was by the young German Fabian Muller, part of the Festival’s Young Explorers programme. The question begged is this, “Does contemporary music that is not often heard qualify to be rarities?” 

This festival has thrived on less-heard Romantic repertoire, but what about late 20th century music? One hardly hears these in most recitals (other than a handful of Ligeti Etudes or Carl Vine’s Bagatelles or First Sonata), so Gyorgy Kurtag’s aphoristic Splitter (1978) comes as a surprise – comprising short shards of atonal sound with extremes of dynamic changes and occasional playful gestures. Russian Nikolai Obuchow’s Revelation from 1915 is more convincing, with Scriabinesque gestures, Schoenbergian or Bergian dissonances, typical of the Russian avant-garde and sounding something ahead of its time.

The rest of his programme hardly qualifies as rarities. Debussy’s early Ballade (heard in complete Debussy sets), a selection of Brahms Piano Pieces Op.76 (deceptively difficult pieces to play) and Liszt’s Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen are now more regularly heard these days. He plays these very well, and the violent but dry-like-dust Busoni single-movement Sonatina Seconda, a work with occult and sinister intensions which is as far away as one gets from Bach-Busonian congeniality. That too was enough to demonstrate the presence of a serious and considerable artist.

The Busoni was heard in last year’s Singapore International Piano Festival (from Chiyan Wong) and will be heard in The Joy of Music Festival in Hong Kong come October (from Ivan Krpan). So this work looks like losing rarity status pretty soon, and that is what happens when pieces begin to join the mainstream.

The well-tendered garden of the Schloss,
where a drink in the summer evening is always welcome.
PianoCrazy: my collage of images of
concert attendees from the the 2017 festival 


Van Cliburn with Nikita Krushchev.
"Is he the best? Then give him the 1st prize!"

Sunday 19 August 2018

MATINEE: STUART ISACOFF Lecture-Talk (11 am)

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Van Cliburn’s triumph at the 1st Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1958. In his book When The World Stopped To Listen, the American write Stuart Isacoff detailed the circumstances that led to Cliburn’s unexpected victory and the ramifications it had to the Cold War. 

His 90-minute lecture-talk was illustrated by slides (and an exhibition of historical photographs) and video clips at the competition and in the company of Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. It also relived the tensions between the superpowers and how Cliburn’s love for Russian music and the Russian people (and their whole-hearted reception and reciprocation), led to a temporary thaw in relations, and a new appreciation for classical music’s role in world peace. 

Isacoff’s anecdotes were filled with humour, and the breezy account was much enjoyed by a very receptive audience who were full of questions. Will there be a future Van Cliburn  to ease the Trump-Putin-Kim jam the world is in now? Probably not.

MUZA RUBACKYTE Piano Recital (7.30 pm)

The ethos of the Husum Rarities Festival is the quest of different harmonies. So it was totally appropriate to hear the 12 Preludes Op.36 (1914-15) of Louis Vierne, the French composer far better known for his organ music. He was a contemporary of Rachmaninov, so the rich textures and harmonies of the late Romantic period were not unexpected. The wonder was why we have not heard these works as often as those overplayed preludes by Chopin or Rachmaninov. 

Rubackyte does a wonderful job, producing a robust and beefy sonority, especially in the numbers which are thick with chords and more complex harmonies. She also passionately presses the case for her compatriot Mikulajus Ciurlionis, a selection of Preludes and Nocturnes are beautifully rendered.

The highlight would have been the shockingly short-lived Reubke’s single-movement Sonata in B flat minor, dedicated to his teacher Franz Liszt. The poor man died at the age of 24 (probably from tuberculosis, the AIDS of the 19th century), and should have accomplished very much had he lived another 24 years more. 

Anyone who would respond to Liszt’s B minor Sonata would very much warm up to the thematic transformation and metamorphoses to be found in the Reubke. The main theme returns strategically and becomes like an old friend. Rubackyte was not totally secure with the work, had several short memory lapses, and over-compensated by banging. Not the most persuasive case to be made here, and the same overwrought manner also affected her two Liszt encores, Les Jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este and the Third Liebestraume.  

Rush hour at the Holm in Flensburg.
In a Flensburg record shop.

Monday 20 August 2018


The Italian Antonio Pompa-Baldi gave one of the best recitals in the 2017 Festival, and was a natural to be re-invited. His programme this year mirrored the successes of last year, which included an early Romantic sonata and a selection of popular songs in excellent arrangements. 

Last year’s Czerny was replaced by Hummel, Mozart’s most successful pupil, and his E flat major Sonata was a pleasure to listen to – the lightness of Mozart unencumbered by Beethovenian angst, and a sweet Rondo to close. Completely different was Sergei Liapounov’s 12th Transcendental Etude, in Memory of Franz Liszt, which sounds like an overblown version of Liszt’s own Heroic Elegy that is his Fifth Hungarian Rhapsody. It is heavy and portentous, full of sighs and grumbles with without a fast friss to provide that extra frisson to drive these showy rhapsodies.

The balance of his programme was much lighter, such as Chabrier’s Bouree Fantasque, which is jocular and frolicsome. With Pompa-Baldi’s variegated touches, one can literally hear the jokes. As with last year’s festival, Roberto Piana’s transcriptions return with a garland of Neapolitan songs, such as Santa Lucia, La Danza, Funiculi Funicula and Core N’grato among others, performed with much gusto. Would it be unkind to refer to these as high class lounge music? In the same vein, Poulenc’s Napoli, three movements which include a Barcarolle, Nocturne and Italian Caprice close the recital on a spirited high.

As before, Pompa-Baldi was generous with encores – five in total. He seems to think that the number five is obligatory. These include his own transcription of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise (which like the Sergio Fiorentino version, is straight-forward but beautiful), two Piazzolla tangos (Libertango and Oblivion), Grieg’s Notturno in C major and a true rarity, Serenade by Frenchman Gabriel Grovlez. AP-B’s pianism is a gift that continues giving.  


Sightseeing: The hall of classical casts
at the Kunsthalle in Kiel

Tuesday 21 August 2018


I have several of the Paris-based Japanese pianist Etsuko Hirose’s CD recordings, and if anything, she is even better in recital. Her slender figure belies a formidable capacity for pianistic punishment, not least in the Transcendental Etudes of Sergei Liapounov, essentially a Russian-flavoured tribute to Franz Liszt’s fearsome dozen. She played four of these: Dance of the Phantoms, Epic Song (with the Dies Irae cleverly submerged within its textures), Aeolian Harp and the now ubiquitous Lesghinka. The last is the intrepid pianist’s surrogate for Balakirev’s frankly overplayed Islamey, and Hirose’s thunderous performance simply nailed it. 

The dance theme continues with Joaquin Turina’s Danzas Gitanas (Gypsy Dances), the description ritmicos appearing in at least two of the five pieces. It thus sounds very Spanish and very gypsy-like, but nothing prepared me for the most sultry and dark of harmonies in Invocacion, the longest and most beautiful piece of all. There were also other pieces by the Bulgarian Pantcho Vladigerov, and Russians Bortkiewicz and Balakirev.

Thanks to Husum, Alkan’s music are no longer rarities with Husumites, the path being well trodden by the likes of Hamelin. We still got to hear some of the eccentric Frenchman’s more popular works, which were well chosen and contrasted by Hirose, the weird and eerily effective Song of the Mad Woman by the Sea, the prestidigitation of Le Chemin de Fer (a truly evocative railway piece), the sicilienne-like nocturne of Le Grillen and the riotous set of variations that is Le Festin D’Esope (Aesop’s Feast). 

Her encores were rather special too, Alexis Weissenberg’s transcription of a Kosaku Yamada song (with jazzy harmonies, just published last month!) and Liszt’s transcription of the 1st movement from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I don’t need further convincing: Etsuko Hirose is a gem made for Husum.

A sunny day in the North Sea island of Pellworm.

Wednesday 22 August 2018


One thing is for certain: the German Severin von Eckardstein can play practically anything. After his sensation debut of two years ago (evident by five selections on the most recent annual Husum selections CD on Danacord), his return was not unexpected. This time around, he opened with young Russian pianist Vyacheslav Gryaznov’s transcription of Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi dun faune, whose truly orchestral conception on the keyboard beats the heck of the plain skin-and-bones common-garden version by Leonard Borwick. 

There was more cheerful Chabrier again, this time the skittish Impromptu and pastoral romp that is the Rondo Champetre. Five movements from La Maison dans les dunes (1910) by the tragically short-lived Gabriel Dupont (1878-1914) suddenly changed the mood from frivolously light-hearted to wistful and sombre. Unlike Emile Naoumoff who played an entire set of Dupont last year (and lasting the best part of a dolour-inducing hour), Eckardstein’s judicious selection prevented the listener from losing attention and interest. The music is gorgeous and his recording is worth an investment of time and lucre.

Slavic music comprised the second half, with Felix Blumenfeld’s Cloches (Bells) in three movements. Here the carillon and clangour of bells of all registers and sorts filled the air, and the best part is one never being reminded of La Campanella nor Rachmaninov’s choral symphony of the same ilk. Finally Balakirev’s Sonata in B flat minor completed the programme. 

Why is this never as often performed as Rachmaninov’s almost banal sonata in the same key. Its just as virtuosic and more subtle in parts. Perhaps too subtle.  The clue lies in its quiet conclusion, which dissolves to nothingness, where the audience follows up with merely appreciative and understated applause. Imagine it this had closed with Rach, or like Islamey – the ovation would have been totally wild! 

Eckardstein’s three encores includes another Dupont movement, Blumenfeld’s most famous piece – the A flat major Etude for left hand alone (not a rarity for southpaws) - and a short by Sergei Slonimsky, which was Grieg-like but with Russian accents.


I finally got to visit
the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.
The spire of Nikolaikirche, a remnant of
the fire-bombing of Hamburg in 1943.

Thursday 23 August 2018


Are there such things as “justly neglected” classics? Austrian pianist Ingrid Marsoner’s programme looked interesting on paper, but on reality came off like a damp squib. She is certainly not a bad pianist, but her selections paled alongside those that came before and after. Anselm Huttebrenner was a good friend of Schubert’s, and his Geisterszenen (Ghost Scenes) was intermittently interesting with its supposedly spectral sound effects, of things that go bump in the night, the sort of things which made Alkan’s music fascinating. 

Hummel’s Rondo-Fantasy is not the same Rondo Favorita that had become quite popular among pianists but something less captivating, while his Fantasy on Mozart’s Non Piu Andrai (from The Marriage of Figaro) was merely a note-spinner, obviously churned out for fiscal rather than artistic reasons.

Rachmaninov’s Etudes-tableaux are hardly rarities. Marsoner played the G minor and E flat minor numbers from Op.33 well but made a complete hash of the elusive D minor etude from Op.39. As for Robert Fuchs’ First Sonata, one listen in a lifetime would be enough. Its thin thematic material, which one is seriously challenged to remember, and an idiom no more advanced than Schubert (long dead by 1877 when it was conceived) made this a lead balloon. On wonders what an 80-year-old Schubert would have thought of that. Marsoner’s encore, thankfully by Schubert, his Klavierstuck in E flat minor (from the late D.946 trilogy), was the best music of the whole evening. And she played it like she knew that as a fact.

A day trip took me to the town of Tonder,
just across the border in Denmark.
The historic water tower is now part of the
Tonder-South Jutland Museum.

Friday 24 August 2018


The Brit Simon Callaghan was one of three Young Explorers in the 2016 festival, and has now “graduated” to play in a main event recital. His programme truly qualifies to rarity status, so rare that a page-turner was required for all three works. Honestly, I have never heard of John Francis Barnett (1837-1916, a Briton) or Jean-Louis Nicode (1853-1919, a Prussian despite his French name) but on account of Callaghan’s excellent and passionate performances, the need to hear their works again borders on fairly urgent.

There was nothing English about Barnett’s Sonata in E minor (published in 1895), except that it may have been heard in some turn-of-the-century English drawing room. Mendelssohn and Schumann-like is closer to the mark, with lots of notes but very pleasant, and almost too gentrified. Its finale was a Saltarello ed Intermezzo, and that is as much a tribute to both Germans as one could get. 

Nicode’s Six Fantasy Pieces Op.6 (1876) are subtitled Andenken an Robert Schumann (Memories of R.S.), and its first piece shouts Kreisleriana at the outset. Their lengths, running to over half an hour, suggests these could be Nouvelles Novelettes. Every Schumannism thought possible is recycled here. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Is this a tribute or mere pastiche? His four encores: three short movements from Nicode’s Ein Liebesleben (A Life of Love) and the first piece from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, naturally.

In between was K.S.Sorabji’s Le jardin parfume (The Perfumed Garden), almost 20 minutes of nocturnal bliss and stupor. It is one of those pieces played pianissimo throughout, meandering, without apparent development and seemingly without end. By not knowing what to expect, impatience will built up, and by the umpteenth time one thinks “Enough!”, it actually concludes. Maybe Sorabji needed to go to the men’s room. A point of note, Kun Woo Paik performed this at the 2005 Singapore International Piano Festival, some 13 years before Husum!


Saturday 25 August 2018


The second of two Husum matinees, was a show-and-tell by record producer Mike Spring, a name familiar to those who own Hyperion and Appian (APR) recordings. He was responsible for Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series and a whole slew of newly “discovered” and re-mastered historical recordings on the APR label, which he had bought from founder Bryan Crimp. 

His talk My Favourite Things was a loving recollection on historical piano playing and the revelation of many forgotten names of Romantic and “Golden Age” pianism. A true labour of love, one cannot imagine him ever recouping the costs of producing these discs (which are often bargains on the internet), but one must remain grateful. Now this was one lecture that I was happy more than happy to stay long overtime for! 

Cattle grazing near Koldenb├╝ttel,
just outside  the Feldhusen farmhouse.
The old farmhouse of Rote Haubarg,
now a heritage museum and restaurant.


The last recital in this year’s festival fell to the Lithuanian-Russian Lukas Geniusas, who so impressed with Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis in last year’s festival. He too has graduated from “Young Explorer” status and his showing with an unlikely programme of 37 disparate short pieces in four suites was no less interesting.

The first half opened with Bizet’s Bilder vom Rhein (Pictures from the Rhine), last heard from Johann Blanchard among the 2016 Rarities. Neither Carmen nor L’Arlesienne, these are however pretty enough to be worth listening to again. Also by another song composer, seven pieces from Reynaldo Hahn’s Le Rossignal Eperdu (The Bewildered Nightingale, a cycle of 51 shorts!) were very well-chosen and contrasted. The 19th piece is entitled Berceuse Feroce (here’s an oxymoron if any) which is a quiet but tenacious ostinato. The short cycle closed with a lyrical Adieux (No.51) with a lovely left hand melody.

The second half’s selections from Valery Arzoumanov’s 27 Pieces Op.74 (1985) and Leonid Desyatnikov’s Preludes: Songs from the Bukovina sound like a mixed bag. Character pieces they certainly are: some are child-like, some with jazz inflexions, folk influences, snatches of film-like music, spiced up with mild dissonances. With atonality and serialism kept at bay, these sound pleasant, entertaining but ultimately inconsequential. Geniusas’ enthusiasm is infectious, and his four encores include two more Desyatnikov preludes, Prokofiev’s harp-like Prelude (Op.12 No.7) and a Bartok Hungarian peasant song. A light and nice way to end yet another memorable edition of the Rarities festival.

With Ludwig Madlener,
Bavarians and Singaporeans all love Husum!

Taking off from Hamburg airport,
a great view of the Elbphilharmonie,
St Michael's Church and a WWII flak-tower.

Sunday 26 August 2019

Its back to Singapore for me, back to work (bah!) via London Heathrow (double bah!), but in life, one has to take the good and the not so good in one’s stride. Husum and rarities will always be a good, and so here’s to 2019!

Postlude: 12 October 2018

I have just received an e-mail from none other than Peter Froundjian, Artistic Director and Founder of the Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum. I had almost forgotten that I had handed him a copy of Clarisse Teo’s Esplanade recital on my first day in Husum, and now an invitation to Singapore’s newest concert pianist beckons. In particular, he was “very pleased about the programming and her convincing playing”. Clarisse will become a Husumite Young Explorer in 2019!    

A bit of Husum in Singapore:
the Katzensaal at Schloss Woollerton,
see the resemblance?

Thursday, 15 August 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, August 2019)

Erato 0190295811693 / *****

The music of Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759), like his close contemporary J.S.Bach, is ripe for improvisation, as demonstrated by Austrian baroque music specialist Christina Pluhar and her period instrument group L’Arpeggiata. This group’s use of jazz and world music techniques in Pluhar’s arrangements makes it stand out.

Handel’s operatic arias, sung in both Italian and English, are known for their purity, beauty and often treacherously virtuosic runs. Countertenor Valer Sabadus and soprano Nuria Rial sing these straight and without further embellishment, such as in Venti, Turbini and Cara Sposa (from Rinaldo) and Piangero La Sorte Mia (Giulio Cesare).

It is however in the instrumentation that the music takes on a different dimension. Listen to how Gianluigi Trovesi’s clarinet turns the Sinfonia from Alcina into a Klezmer dance. Or whoever thought that the familiar Where’er You Walk (Semele) could be made to sound like a close cousin of Gershwin’s I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ (Porgy And Bess)?

The Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba (Solomon) gets all jazzed up with Francesco Turrisi on piano, and in Canario, an improvisation based on Girolamo Kapsberger, percussionist Sergey Saprichev takes on the idiom of konnakol (Carnatic rhythmic scat singing) convincingly. 

To close, Ombra Mai Fu (Serse), better known as Handel’s Largo, Doron Sherwin’s cornet paves the way for Sabadus’ moving plaint. Old and new sit easily in the true spirit of the baroque within this fascinating album, all 75 minutes of it. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

MUSICAL FRONTIERS / Ding Yi Music Company and Suc Song Moi Bamboo Ensemble / Review

Ding Yi Music Company
with Suc Song Moi Bamboo Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (11 August 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 August 2019 with the title "An enchanting kaleidoscope of traditional sounds".

Ding Yi Music Company seeks to widen its musical horizons and could not have had a better partnership in concert than Vietnam’s Suc Song Moi (New Vitality) Bamboo Ensemble. Based in Hanoi, the six-member group performs entirely on bamboo instruments. Its protagonists are five dan t’rungs, xylophones crafted from bamboo tubes of varying lengths and struck by mallets.

Their sound is gentle and mellow, with timbres similar to marimbas. These formed the accompaniment to solo instruments related to Chinese instruments but unique to Vietnamese music. Most of the music was arranged by Dong Quang Vinh, the band’s leader and multi-instrumentalist, also a conductor trained in the Western classical tradition. 

The 70-minute long concert opened with Cat Van and Bich Vuong’s Central Highlands Capriccio, a rhapsodic dance of the ethnic minorities showcasing the ensemble’s full capabilities. Harmonies were pleasing, and the rhythms invigorating. With their attention piqued, the audience was further treated to displays of individual virtuosity on solo instruments.

Dong’s brother Minh Anh performed on a dan bau or monochord, its single string controlled by varying tension on a flexible metal rod. Its high-pitched amplified sound (through a loud-hailer) had a quivering otherworldly quality, not dissimilar to electric guitar, theremin or Ondes Martenot. It made Nguyen Van Ty’s Mother’s Love, a cradle-song, sound all the more ethereal.

Equally curious was the k’ni, performed by Ta Xuan Quynh, a bowed instrument with its single string controlled by the mouth. The leaves sprouting from both ends of its bamboo body were purely ornamental, but its erhu-like lament in You My Deep Sorrow by Trinh Cong Son (hailed as Vietnam’s Schubert) left a deep impression.

Leader Dong himself gave a masterclass on the humble bamboo piccolo in Nhat Lai’s Pongk’le Birds, which was performed in a variety of ways. Alternating techniques used for dizi, recorder, panpipes and whistle, he simulated a veritable forest of birdsong, before closing with an incredulously long-held note.

Cellist Chee Jun Sian and two percussionists from Ding Yi joined the Viets in the Mongolian folksong Swan Geese, and the full complement of instrumentalists emerged for Phan Huynh Dieu’s The Shadow Of Ko Nia Tree, conducted by Quek Ling Kiong.

This patriotic Vietnam war song and Northern Vietnamese folksong Missing You utilised scales similar to those found in Indonesian music, suggesting familial relationships and influences in supposedly disparate musical cultures. One supposes these belong to an all-inclusive umbrella-like entity which we know as Nanyang music, a subject that bears further ethnomusicological study.

To close, the Vietnamese instruments were embedded within the larger ensemble for the well-known Yunnan melody Xiao He Tang Shui (The Running Stream) and the world premiere of young Singaporean composer Alicia de Silva’s Among Black Bamboos, the concert’s most modern piece.  This itself was transcribed from an earlier work for angklungs and kulintangs. Two words to describe this unusual concert: simply enchanting. 

Post concert, leader Dong Quang Vinh
demonstrates to Culture Minister Grace Fu
how the dan bau is played.
Ta Xuan Quynh shows how a k'ni
is played, mouthpiece, leaves and all.
Dong Minh Ahn plays on a dan bau,
amplified by a megaphone.
Truong Thu Huong plays the Vietnamese zither.
A masterclass on the bamboo piccolo,
as composer Alicia de Silva looks on.
A family of dan t'rungs.