Monday, 19 September 2011

DEATH OF THE HARLEQUIN / T'ang Quartet / Review

T’ang Quartet
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (17 September 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 September 2011 with the title "T'ang Quartet's sterling, stirring effort".

Almost 20 years after it first broke into Singapore’s musical scene, the T’ang Quartet is still at it. Its innovative approach to programming and introducing new works for newer audiences remains undimmed. The latest concert had mortality and its polar opposite - vitality - as unifying themes, the result of which was an unusually stirring outing with modern classics.

One could have been easily distracted by the stage setting. The period furniture, three paintings (including one with the eyes of Michelangelo’s David staring at the audience), flowers in vases and a medieval chandelier with lit candles might have passed as the schizophrenic living room of Batman’s Joker, Despite these, music-making has always come first for the quartet.

True to form, the T'ang Quartet's programme leaflet was different, consisting of four playing cards, each representing the composers in the concert.

For Schubert’s brief Quartet Movement in C minor (D.703), the foursome instilled a sense of urgency and tension, with violinist Ng Yu Ying and cellist Leslie Tan providing the melodic impetus and counterpoint respectively. Both were unerringly united for the unison voice - much easier said than done - in the opening of Finn Aulis Sallinen’s Third String Quartet.

Such is the unspoken chemistry, or one might say telepathy, that exists with chamber musicians who have worked lifelong with each other. Subtitled Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March, the work which is an ingenious theme and variations received the full measure of its poly-stylistic twists and turns.

Even better was the riveting reading of Chinese-American Bright Sheng’s Third String Quartet, the evening’s most modern work. T’ang Quartet was one of its earliest and most persuasive champions, and it showed. From the very first bars with the declamatory statement of a Tibetan folksong, working its way to an intoxicating dance (an Oriental counterpart to Bartok’s own quartets), the ever-pervading sense of incessant pulse and movement was palpable.

The reverse sides of the "playing cards" programme leaflet.

Closing with a lament for the wanton loss of life and innocence (from China’s turbulent history, Cultural Revolution and beyond), the impression was one of ultimate sorrow and regret. A tad less tragic was American composer and diarist Ned Rorem’s Fourth Quartet, where six short and varied movements were performed.

An arch-lyricist himself, these were lent the full gamut of emotional peaks and troughs in which the quartet trenchantly and eloquently expressed. In his engaging preamble, Leslie Tan said the quartet played the six “easiest” movements. Like the harlequin of the concert’s title, surely he jests.

Note: The T'ang Quartet has now returned to its original foursome: Ng Yu Ying & Ang Chek Meng on violins, Lionel Tan on viola and Leslie Tan on cello.

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