Thursday, 25 June 2009

Young Virtuoso Recital: Nicholas Loh (Singapore)

Sunday, 28 June 2009, 3 pm
Victoria Concert Hall

NICHOLAS LOH (Singapore)

RZEWSKI from North American Ballads SINGAPORE PREMIERE
Down By the Riverside – Winnsboro Cotton Mills Blues

What I thought of Nicholas Loh and what led to his selection to perform in the Young Virtuoso Recital @ Singapore International Piano Festival 2009:

“When I was auditioning young musicians for the 1999 SSO Music Marathon, a self-confident Raffles Junior College student whipped off a Debussy Étude with the most nonchalant of ease. “That was quite difficult to play, wasn’t it?” I asked and all he did was to make light of it. Some 8 years later, the music graduate from Birmingham University and regular attendee at the Piano Festival remarked that it was his ambition to perform Ukrainian jazz pianist-composer Nikolai Kapustin’s fiendishly virtuosic Second Piano Sonata in concert. Now he has to make good that wish!”
Nicholas Loh practising on the
only Fazioli grand piano in Bukit Batok.

Young Virtuoso Nicholas Loh shares his personal thoughts on the works he performs:

Piano Suite No. 3 “The Lone Star” (Selections)

I first came in contact with the music of Dr John Sharpley when I stood in as an accompanist for a rehearsal of his work Songs of a Wild Child. Although it was just one rehearsal, the little that I did seemed to resonate with a lot of what I believe music should be like: it should be recognisable, as though it has been heard before, but it should also present something new and different, something which makes the listener want to hear more.

It was a bit of good fortune when Dr Chang caught wind of one of John’s works which had a bit of a Wild West theme to it. The Third Piano Suite, aptly named The Lone Star, made use of sufficient folk and jazz elements to gel with the rest of my programme, while providing an exciting western slant. The music conjures up vivid images of a Wild West scene. It starts with a rousing Square Dance replete with open-string calls, which leads into an almost ‘pas de deux’ blues, forming and disintegrating before the very eyes. A charming song is heard in La Pastora, and this leads into the Variations on The Old Chisolm Trail, the title referring to an old cowboy song and the variations crafting images of riding the mustang, strumming a guitar in the desert night, an old honky-tonk piano churning out music in a crowded Saturday night saloon, and of the cowboy riding into the sunset. A short cadenza-like interlude leads into the final Round Dance, which displays grandeur, spirituality and austerity, the very spirit of the west conjured up on the piano if you will.

I had the chance to sit down with Dr John Sharpley one afternoon to look through his music and have a chat. It turns out that we share quite a few beliefs in music. Needless to say, getting the chance to play this music is quite an honour and a delight. After all, how often do musicians play music by living composers who share such similar thoughts about music with them?

Down by the Riverside
Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues

from Four North American Ballads Singapore Premiere

The story begins with a box from lying on my doorstep containing a box set of Rzewski playing Rzewski, purchased explicitly for his 36 variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated!. I noticed a recording of the four North American Ballads inside and the third one in particular stuck out. It was titled Down by the Riverside, and I remember playing that same tune when I was just starting to learn the piano.

I quickly slipped the CD into the player and flicked my way to the track, and for the first minute or so, I relived through those moments of my childhood with what I now recognize as a well-known Afro-American spiritual tune. Soon after, the music started to change. The music started to wander off on its own, as melodic fragments from the original song interspersed with each other. The chords started to clash, the rhythms started to get more chaotic, and even amidst moments of calm respite, the tune never settled into its original configuration. However, right at the end, the music returned to the calm of the opening with a passage of open sonority in the same key that the music started. This revealed itself to be a frame for the magnificent reprise of the original tune in the tenor line, now decorated with a polyphonic descant line with a grandeur akin to that of a cathedral filled with light. The ending was a bit of an enigma then (and even now), with the glorious build up of sound mysteriously disappearing, but for a brief spell, I revelled in its opalescent glory.

That reverie was soon disrupted by a soft pounding bassline. The music had moved on to the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Unlike Down by the Riverside, I knew of no tune called Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. The opening didn’t really help either with its mechanistic rumble. The theme from Jaws sprang to mind. The soft rumble soon grew louder and louder, the chord clusters crashing down onto the piano like the pounding of a mill. Soon after, the pounding subsided, and there was some semblance of melody (in chords) accompanied by a repeated figure in the bass. Even this melody was covered by the insistent bassline, and soon the crashing started again…all to suddenly cease, and give way to a luscious blues section which would link to the final climax of the piece, a veritable tour-de-force of polyphonic writing, before (finally) revealing the original tune of the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues in what was possibly a set of reverse variations. A final set of pounding chord clusters served only as a reminder of the beginning as the music died away in a way similar to Down by the Riverside.

(At this point, and after a brief moment of silent reverence, I jumped back to the first two Ballads, and while an account of their listening would be out of place here, let me reassure you that they are as good as the last two in the set.)

Such an over-romanticised account would seem naïve at first, but an exercise in self-affirmation is surely not the point here, but rather, a celebration of good music enjoyed by the performer, and hopefully, the listener as well.

Piano Sonata No.2 Singapore Premiere

A chance visit to the (sadly) now-defunct Sweet Classics music shop let me in on the music of Nikolai Kapustin. Steven Osborne had just released a new CD of music by this unknown Ukrainian composer including the first two Piano Sonatas and a selection of Preludes. The titles themselves were innocuous enough, but the music wasn’t. I was blown away by the intense jazziness of it all. Like the Rzewski, I had to lay my hands on some of Kapustin’s music. For a while this seemed nearly impossible until a friend of mine let me in on some scores he had gotten from Japan, including the Op.40 Études and the Second Sonata. I set about playing through everything (with little success…Kapustin’s music does not favour sightreading to a large extent) and over time I built up a scant repertoire of his music.

While it was all good, I knew I had to eventually tackle the mammoth which was the Second Sonata, which had everything going for it. The first movement was exuberant, almost gospel-like in its melodies and textures, and it had enough cool swing and introspectiveness to counter all the fire. The scherzo movement borrows a motif taken out of the first movement and transforms it into a syncopated barrage of notes. A short swing passage in the middle provides a much needed rest before the rhythmic rush resumes its course to a humorous but explosive finish. The third movement is a touch of cool jazz, conjuring up images of smoky jazz clubs, and icy-cold martinis. All seems calm except right at the end, where the peace is shattered by an almost serial rush of notes, leading into the blistering last movement, aptly named perpetuum mobile. Strains of Prokofiev’s toccata writing, Schoenberg’s serial technique, the stride bass much favoured by novelty pianists such as Zez Confrey, and even a 12-bar blues passage are all welded together with that strong jazz element. Liszt comes to mind right at the end of the movement with a flourish of octaves and the final cascade of notes brings this ebullient, extroverted work to a finish.

I met Dr Chang a few years ago at the (also sadly) now-defunct Sing Disc shop, and confessed that I would love to perform the work, despite knowing deep down that the it was nowhere near complete. I put off learning it for a while when I had other less-musical commitments to fulfill, and wondered all too often when I would ever get to learn the music properly, much less perform it in front of a live audience.

I suppose that time is now.

Notes by Nicholas Loh

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