Monday, 9 March 2009

T'ang Quartet with Thomas Hecht / Review

Conservatory Concert Hall
Friday (6 March 2009)

This review was first published on The Straits Times on 9 March 2009.

Chamber music in Singapore has never been the same ever since the T’ang Quartet gave its first concert in 1992, and when the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory came into being in 2003. Chamber concerts at the 600-seater Conservatory Concert Hall, where the quartet resides as faculty members, have been filled to capacity so regularly that one wonders whether a musical revolution of sorts is taking place under our noses.

A small but totally acceptable downside is that so many newcomers to these events invariably lead to people being unsure as how to “behave” in a concert setting. Inappropriate applause between movements and latecomers disrupted the natural flow to an otherwise taut reading of Haydn’s String Quartet in G major (Op.77 No.1). This prompted cellist Leslie Tan to make this simple plea: movements are like chapters of a book, one that ends definitively when the music finally stops.

This exhortation was well heeded, as a quartet of students joined the T’angs to perform Shostakovich’s Prelude & Scherzo (Op.11) for string octet. Absolute silence separated the dotted rhythms of the Prelude, and the Scherzo’s wild ride through schizophrenic vistas of the Soviet composer’s troubled mind. The eight musicians blended like one in an enthralling display of dripping sarcasms and razor-sharp reflexes.

Further words came from pianist Thomas Hecht (left), Head of Piano Studies, who helped sweeten the “bitter” pill that was the Russian Alfred Schnittke’s death-haunted Piano Quintet (1972-76), receiving its very first Singapore performance. Again it worked wonders; from Hecht’s soliloquy that stated the work’s idée fixe, a recurring main thematic idea, to its ironic and final soothing figurations, the audience was kept transfixed.

In between was music of a most dissonant kind; jarring intervals of semitones and shifting microtones – recalling the Doppler effect or a discomfiting nearby swarm of hornets - and sounds usually associated with a haunted house or horror movies were de rigeuer with vintage Schnittke (left). The quintet of performers – which had so eloquently delivered Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in 2005 – made an altogether persuasive case for this elusive piece.

Was the public’s reaction a rapt silence, or a merely stunned one? Judging by the genuinely warm and generous applause that followed, it was certainly a triumph of the former.

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