Tuesday, 15 September 2020

ESSENCE OF SCO / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review


Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall

Friday (11 September 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 September 2020 with the title "Joyful symphonic fantasy marks orchestra's triumphant return".


The date September 11 will be remembered for historical reasons, but in Singapore this year it marked the return of concert life after six months in the wilderness. The global Covid-19 pandemic is still with us, but traces of the old normality are returning as the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) became the first musical group to present a live concert before a live audience.


Greeted by warm and appreciative applause, a pared-down 23-person chamber orchestra led by music director Yeh Tsung performed an hour-long concert for a socially distanced audience limited to just 50 persons. The first thought that came to mind: what a pleasure it was to witness music first hand rather than from a screen and through a pair of headphones.

Zhao Jiping’s rousing Celebration Overture opened the concert. Although its first pages were a blatant rip-off from Glinka’s Ruslan And Ludmilla Overture, there was still enough original material to sustain interest. The big erhu melody, later heard on concertmaster Li Baoshun’s jinghu, was memorable, as was Jin Shiyi’s suona solo that rose above the throng at its apotheosis.


Conductor Yeh compared the evening’s programme to a four-movement symphony. Thus legendary blind erhu player Hua Yanjun aka Abing’s Reflection Of The Moon On Erquan served as its slow second movement. Orchestrated for bowed strings by Wu Zhuqiang and Moses Gay, the ensemble played liked an expanded string quartet, with the melodic interest sustained by gaohus and erhus.


Some have compared this with Barber’s Adagio For Strings, but these works are actually very different. Abing’s Moon is atmospheric and meditative but not weepy, its evocation being nostalgia rather than tragedy or outright grief. The overall effect created was particularly beautiful.  


Still on popular melodies, Molihua (Jasmine) was relived in a form of a symphonic fantasy by master orchestrator Liu Wenjin. The highly recognisable tune was heard at the the outlet, and subject to a fine series of variations. Among the solo instruments highlighted were the dizi and Jin’s suona which became its most prominent voice.


The concert’s final movement was an abridged 10-minute version of Law Wai Lun’s The Celestial Web, a large-scaled work commissioned by the Singapore Arts Festival and premiered by the SCO in 2003. Gone however were the recitations, chorus and Tan Swie Hian’s words which hailed the universality of man, but Schiller’s Ode To Joy message came through in the music which opened with deliberate quotes from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.


Eclectic as this music was, with influences from Ravel, Gershwin and film music, it did not outstay its welcome. The opportunity to enjoy its intricate instrumentation, Zhao Jianhua’s erhu solo and a sentimental wallow towards the end was well worth the time. The general feeling of optimism continued into the celebratory encore Hua Hao Yue Yuan (Blooming Flowers, Full Moon) with a customary clap-along. What was there not to enjoy?

Monday, 14 September 2020

BACH BEATS CORONA / Red Dot Baroque / Review


Red Dot Baroque

Streamed on SISTIC Live

Sunday (6 September 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 September 2020 with the title "Bach's life-affirming music for troubled times".


Musical groups in Singapore are slowly but surely getting a grip on the Covid-19 pandemic, with more online concerts being released on the Internet in lieu of live concerts. The latest was by Red Dot Baroque, Singapore’s only professional period instrument ensemble, with Bach Beats Corona.


The catchy title was borrowed from the ongoing worldwide movement performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s life-affirming music in these troubled times. The group’s founder and lead violinist Alan Choo played host by introducing the works, each performed by one to four players, all socially distanced and masked.


The concert opened with the Trio Sonata in G major (BWV 1039) for two flutes, viola da gamba and harpsichord. A delightul work which contains exactly the same music as the Viola Da Gamba Sonata No.1 (BWV.1027), its four movements alternated between a song-like countenance and contrapuntal busyness. Cheryl Lim and Rachel Ho on traverso flutes (baroque flutes) revelled in their starring roles, partnered by Mervyn Lee (gamba) and Gerald Lim (keyboard).


Each work was prefaced by a short movement in the same key from Bach’s Cello Suites, performed on baroque cello by Leslie Tan (from the T’ang Quartet). This included the familiar Prelude in G, Sarabande in C minor and Allemande in D major, all being movements possessed with a meditative quality. The last was played on a 5-stringed cello, producing a deep and long-breathed sonority.


The Violin Sonata No.4 in C minor (BWV.1017) is probably Bach’s best known accompanied violin sonata. If its 1st movement sounded familiar, that was because it used the same theme as the hauntingly beautiful aria Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott (Have Mercy, My God) from Saint Matthew Passion. The instruments may be different, but the doleful spirit of contrition remained. Violinist Brenda Koh gave a sensitive reading, accompanied on obbligato harpsichord by Lee, a former child prodigy known as a polymath in all things baroque.


To illustrate Bach’s great sense of variety, the works chosen displayed a wealth of nuances and responses.  For example, there was a highly dramatic and almost improvisatory prelude that opened the Violin Sonata in E minor (BWV.1023), very unlike the other works. Violinist Placida Ho handled its surprising exuberance brilliantly, then keeping up the same exalted level in later movements. Here she was partnered by cellist Tan and harpsichordist Lim.


The 70-minute programme concluded with Trio Sonata in D minor (BWV.527) with violinists Choo and Gabriel Lee, backed by Tan and Lee on continuo. Originally conceived as an organ sonata, its three movement schema resembled the concerto form pioneered by the Italians, which Bach was undoubtedly familiar with. The duo voices of both soloists came through clearly in a spirited reading which could be described as a joyful romp.

This lovely concert is available to view on www.sistic.com.sg on a pay-as-you-please basis till 6 October 2020.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

MORE PRELUDES TO CHOPIN / Kenneth Hamilton (Piano) / Review




Prima Facie / PFCD 134

This is the Cardiff-based Scottish pianist Kenneth Hamilton’s second Chopin recital disc built upon the subject of preludes. The prélude is a short piece meant to preceding a more extended work, but Chopin did not really plan it that way. He wrote 27 preludes, 24 of which were included in his well-known Op.28 set. He however never performed all of these in a single sitting (unlike what recordings and piano competitions suggest), instead picking a choice few for his recitals.

Hamilton’s juxtapositioning of preludes and longer pieces is both imaginative and ingenious. The most obvious pairing comes at the beginning, the C minor Prélude (Op.28 No.20) followed by the C minor Nocturne (Op.48 No.1). The two fit like hand and glove. Then it becomes less predictable when harmonic and key signature relationships do not play a part. Mood and emotion take over when the E minor Prélude (Op.28 No.4) comes before the A minor Waltz (Op.34 No.2). Both pieces explore different aspects of melancholy.  


Resolute chords link the Prélude in E major (Op.28 No.9) with the Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major (Op.61), two otherwise unrelated keys. Diametrically contrasted works – the coruscating B flat minor Prélude (Op.28 No.16) and the serene E flat Nocturne (Op.55 No.2) – hang on a single note. A high B flat unites both pieces. 

When can a prélude precede another prélude? When their keys are D flat major (Op.28 No.15, the Raindrop) and C sharp minor (Op.28 No.10, the Night Moth, both according to Hans von Bülow) respectively. Which is followed by the C sharp minor Waltz (Op.64 No.2), of course. 

There is much to enjoy in this programme, which also includes the popular E flat major Nocturne (Op.9 No.2) in a rarely heard and more florid alternative version, Variations Brillante (Op.12), the First Ballade (Op.23), and more préludes. 

A third volume awaits. Hamilton’s playing is up there with the best of Chopin intepreters, and it is his spirited advocacy of programme planning by preluding that makes this recital disc stand above the routine. 

Friday, 4 September 2020




More Than Music

Streamed on Facebook

Last Saturday & Sunday (29 & 30 August 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 September 2020 with the title "An exuberant showcase of Beethoven's Violin Sonatas".


This year marks the 250 anniversary of the birth of great German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). No symphony or concertos cycles had been planned in Singapore but given the Covid-19 pandemic, one should be grateful for More Than Music’s online cycle of his ten violin sonatas.


Contrary to earlier publicity, this is not the first time such a cycle has been presented here. Back in 1999, veteran Penang-born pianist Dennis Lee performed with five young Singapore Symphony Orchestra violinists in three concerts at Victoria Concert Hall.


Nevertheless, this was still a showcase by a Who’s Who of Singapore’s classical scene: violinists Loh Jun Hong, Chan Yoong Han and Yang Shuxiang, partnered with Abigail Sin, Lim Yan and Albert Tiu, pianists who are also faculty members of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. All the performances were recorded at Esplanade Recital Studio and released online in published order every Saturday and Sunday afternoon since 23 August.


The ten sonatas spanned from 1798 to 1812, encompassing the “Early” and “Middle” periods of  Beethoven’s creative output. Like his better known piano sonatas, these display a wealth of expression, and feature very difficult piano parts which he played himself. Little wonder, these were often referred to as sonatas for piano with violin.


The early Op.12 trilogy is less often heard but are contrasted in emotions and feelings. No.1 in D major established his spirited and extroverted style, a conscious reaction to the gentility of Mozart’s sonatas for the same instruments. Loh’s incisive approach and excellent intonation, with Sin keenly responsive partnership, made it a pleasure to behold.


All the performers gave a short preamble, providing succinct insights to each work. Sonata No.2 in A major was more light-hearted, with even an air of mischief. Its humour in the outer movements was well captured by Chan and Lim (members of the well-established Take Five quintet), who also plumbed the depths in the slow movement’s more serious moments.  

The most exuberant of the set, Sonata No.3 in E flat major suited the duo of Yang and Tiu just fine. The former’s unbridled demonstration of passion found a perfect foil in the latter’s sensitive yet scintillating fingerwork. The casting of the sonatas and allocation of the respective performers had been spot on through out.

Sonata No.4 in A major (Op.23) was the first of the stand-alone sonatas. From the outset, its dramatic intensity and bristling energy saw Chan and Sin flexing muscle and sinew. Its heightened  tension was contrasted by the mincing steps and play of counterpoint in the second movement. This was before the finale’s unease, bringing back earlier trials and tribulations for a nervy finish.


This excellently curated cycle continues with Sonata No.5 and onwards from Saturday till 20 September at:



Wednesday, 2 September 2020

MOZART & STRAVINSKY: MUSIC ON THE AIR / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

This review was first published in Bachtrack 

on 1 September 2020

Concert life has yet to return to normality in Singapore. Due to pandemic social distancing measures, no live concerts with live audiences are possible, and musical groups rely on the Internet to present pre-recorded performances for an online audience. Since August, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) has presented three new concerts, performed in an empty 1600-seat Esplanade Concert Hall, two of which were directed by its Chief Conductor Hans Graf. 

These concerts featuring chamber-sized forces, and there was a pleasing symmetry to the second concert led by Graf. Works by Mozart sandwiched those of Stravinsky, with strings performing in the first half, and winds and brass accounting for the second.

The concert began with Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor for strings, better known in its versions for string quartet and two pianos. Straight off, one was struck by the sonority brought out by the low strings, which was matched by the tautness of ensemble. In the dotted rhythm of the slow introduction, the gravity of the moment was brought to bear under Graf’s precise direction. The play of counterpoint was just as impressive in the Fugue, one of Mozart’s most masterly, closing the opener in one accord.  


The strings next tackled Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Apollo (also known as Apollon Musagète), a sleeker and more elegant side of his neoclassicism phase. The antithesis of Pulcinella’s free-wheeling buffoonery, it is also as far as possible across the sound spectrum from the primeval violence of The Rite of Spring. Apollo, with ten movements and shorn of choreography, might be an acquired taste. However, with some of Stravinsky’s most ravishing string music, this was to be the showcase for SSO’s fabled strings.

Lushness and homogeneity were the hallmark in its two tableaux. The first (and shorter) Birth of Apollo would immediately set the tone. Concertmaster Kong Zhao Hui was also excellent in his solo in Variation of Apollo, where he was later joined by violinist Ye Lin. Each of the dance movements involving Apollo and three muses (Calliope, Polyhymnia and Terpsichore) could have easily dissolved into routine and blandness, but that never happened. The temperature was raised for the penultimate Coda, but it was blissful harmony and restrain that would characterise the final Apotheosis.

If strings were the orchestra’s pride, the winds proved to be every bit their equal. Arguably the best performance of the concert came in Stravinsky’s Octet (1922-23), scored for flute, clarinet, a pair each of bassoons and trumpets, trombone and bass trombone. Also neoclassical in intent if not in form, the heady spirit of the baroque concerto grosso was upheld. Each player a virtuoso in his own right, this was a reading of close to perfect precision and exactitude. Following the austere Sinfonia, the central Theme and Variations became an exciting showcase of free-wheeling virtuosity. The Finale’s fugal machinations also proved a sheer delight, with Liu Chang’s jaunty solo bassoon leading the way, all through to an immaculate and crisp conclusion.


The Mozart that closed the palindromic programme, his Serenade in E flat major (K.375), was also an octet, scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. Back to a more familiar idiom, the sense of ensemble was no less cohesive as Graf coaxed from his charges a lively and cogent performance. The operatic qualities in each of the five movements were never underplayed, with the singing tone in solos coming to the fore. An enjoyable reading, for certain, and it appeared that the performers enjoyed it too.   


Covid-19 is still with us, and it is not known when live concerts would commence, if ever. However it is with concerts like this show that true artists continue to strive, to provide solace and hope that better days will soon return.  

Star Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, 1 September 2020



LYNNETTE SEAH  Violin Recital

National Gallery Facebook Live

Saturday (29 August 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 September with the title "Moving music matched by music". 

The National Gallery’s Art + Live series of monthly online concerts invites local performers to reflect and respond to selected art pieces with pieces of music which have resounded with and moved them. Its latest guest was Cultural Medallion recipient violinist Lynnette Seah, who retired as Co-Leader of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra earlier this year.


She had served the national orchestra for 41 years, from its inaugural concerts in 1979, and is a true pioneer of the Singapore professional music scene. These days, she has become renowned as a celebrity chef in fine dining circles. Like a well curated meal, her half-hour solo recital comprised varied repertoire works, served as tasty morsels on a silver platter.


Xu Beihong’s 1927 Portrait of Lim Loh (a pioneer architect and building contractor in colonial Singapore, also father of anti-Japanese patriot General Lim Bo Seng) was juxtaposed with the earliest music on the programme, two movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Unaccompanied Violin Partita No.3 in E major.

The swift and technically challenging Preludio revealed Seah’s technique to be still close to impeccable on many fronts. This was contrasted with the double-stopping (playing two notes at the same time) and singing tone in the more leisurely-paced Loure. It seemed a pity that the popular and jaunty Gavotte had not been included in this selection.

Chua Mia Tee’s Road Construction Worker (1955) was a sobering study of hard labour and resilience. Witness the emaciated figure, distended veins and withering gaze of its long-suffering subject. Seah likened this pathos-inducing visage with the outsized demands needed to master Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium & Allegro in the Style of Pugnani. She calmly negotiated the requisite faultless intonation for the slow prelude and then steadfastly withstood the thorny prickles of the fast section, which got increasingly hair-raising as the work progressed.

With the most outwardly virtuosic part of the programme over, Seah brought out her lyrical best for two encore-like pieces, arguably the concert’s most touching moments. These were chosen as a reflection of the subject of love in Chua’s 1957 portrait of his late wife and fellow artist Lee Boon Ngan.

Although there was neither piano nor harp accompaniment to back her in Edward Elgar’s Salut d’Amor, but her gorgeous tone was more than enough to sustain the interest. Following that, Jules Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs was delivered with a similar kind of frisson, demonstrating how a simple tune could carry such impact when played with love and dedication. Such is the measure of a true artist. 

Lynnette Seah and Chua Mia Tee,

both Cultural Medallion recipients.



Streamed Live on the Internet

Friday (28 August 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 September 2020 with the title "Music closes on a high, despite playing 'blind'".


There has not been a live orchestral concert in Singapore since mid-March, before circuit breaker and social distancing measures made grouped performances impossible. There were concerts on the Internet, but mostly of pre-recorded performances. In June, a breakthrough took the form of a live concert by the Concordia Quartet, whose four members performed from different locations for a live Internet audience. 

Its parent organisation, re:Sound, has gone several steps further by presenting a live chamber orchestra concert with a full symphony to boot. Twenty-three musicians were gathered into spaces  of an Orchard Road location where they performed, socially distanced, wearing headphones and masked (wind players excepted). As they played, the wonders of modern digital technology ensured that their efforts were being appreciated by online viewers. 

One positive outcome of this pandemic has been to witness the sheer ingenuity of people who live for art, want to make good music, and share it with others.

The 50-minute concert opened with English composer Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite (1926) for strings. Its six movements were based on French renaissance dances, brought up to date with modern harmonies and occasional dissonances. The 14 string musicians were separated into four rooms, where they essentially played “blind”, that is being unable to see the other groups, but able to hear them. 

Despite the disadvantage, they produced a clear and homogeneous sound in the opening Basse-Danse soon after leader violinist Edward Tan gave the three-count to begin. Despite the absence of an on-site audience, the opportunity for premature and untimely applause still cropped up. That happened just after the presto 4th movement (Bransles), leading to some confusion among the players and crew. Resuming from that, the tender Pieds-en-l’air and vigorous Mattachins (Sword Dance) provided enough contrasts for the suite to close with appropriate plaudits. 

The main event was Mozart’s popular Symphony No.40 in G minor, with woodwinds and brass thrown into the fray. Division of labour saw these musicians playing in two further rooms, with the pair of bassoons (a husband-wife couple) sequestered into a studio just bigger than a broom closet.

There was no conductor, instead the musicians relied on low strings to begin and for the others to join in. Ensemble could be tighter but given the circumstances, the results were more than acceptable. Tempos were not overly brisk, with a comfortable pace adopted, surely predetermined in earlier rehearsals. Yet there was still a palpable sense of tension and urgency in the 1st movement’s development. 

The slow 2nd movement did not drag but maintained an unerring course, a sign of an ensemble gaining in confidence. The Menuetto was suitably jaunty, but the French horns had hairy moments of intonation in the Trio section. The rollicking finale was taken at a fair lick, ensuring a heightened level of excitement, which turned into suspense when the violists disappeared from view. Technical glitch or no, the music surged on regardless to close on a exultant high.  

You can attend this concert at:


Tuesday, 18 August 2020




Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Streamed online via SISTIC Live

Saturday (15 August 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 August 2020  with the title "Joyous showcase of local music canon".


Over the last three years, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s National Day Concerts have become proud showcases of works by Singaporean and locally-based composers. This year’s offerings, conducted by Darrell Ang, included four new works. Three were by young composers who by their ages would be known as millennials. Never in Singapore’s 55-year history has there been such a glut of composing talent.


The concert began with New Beginnings by Sandra Lim  (born 1991), a slickly orchestrated fantasy on two popular songs, Di Tanjong Katong and Singapura. Resembling the scores of Hollywood epics à la John Williams, motifs of both songs were wittily bandied about but never heard in full. As per social distancing requirements, the orchestra was chamber-sized, with musicians widely separated on the Esplanade Concert Hall stage, and all masked-up (wind players excepted) which is for now standard concert attire.  


More modern and ominous in feel was Metro by Tan Yuting (born 1993), a portrayal of urban hyperactivity, perhaps not of Singapore’s pristine streets, but somewhere far less secure or savoury. Over an ostinato beat established by Jonathan Fox on hi-hat cymbals, a quasi-minimalist scenario unfolded with Stravinskyan economy but always poised on a razor’s edge. As if violence might erupt at any moment, this seemed a portent of the uncertain times we live in.


Exuberant would aptly describe City Arising by Jonathan Shin (born 1992), a bustling morning scene as the nation awakes to another fraught and frenetic day. Even the ear-piercing call of the koel is quoted, heard on Ma Yue’s solo clarinet, and the ensuing hubbub is a good-natured and comically optimistic one, recalling socialist-realist overtures of Shostakovich and Kabalevsky.  


The Texan John Sharpley (born 1955), resident here since the mid-1980s, is the sole boomer among  young upstarts. His chamber opera Kannagi (2009), based on the Tamil saga Silapathikaram (The Anklet) has now become part of the Singapore opera canon.


Brahman: Kannagi’s Realization, the penultimate section of the opera, is a sequence building up to a grand climax. Anticipation and expectancy is driven to seemingly insurmountable levels, heightened by Shane Thio’s runs on the celesta. This intoxicating music accompanied Bharatanayam dancer Kshirja Govind’s entrancing movements playing the eponymous heroine-turned-goddess.  


After the serious stuff, Dick Lee’s Home (orchestrated by Kelly Tang) provided some levity in a video from the 2018 National Day Concert featuring the Singapore Symphony Choruses. National Day Parade favourite Count On Me, Singapore by the Canadian Hugh Harrison (whose other hit song was Stand Up For Singapore) was sung jazz-styled by Benjamin Kheng in a super slick commercially produced video that also recounted landmarks in SSO’s history.


Finally, it was left to Zubir Said’s national anthem Majulah Singapura (in Tang’s 2020 reorchestration for chamber forces) to do the honours. So what is Singapore music? A fuller picture emerges with each and every National Day concert, so long may this continue.