Tuesday, 3 April 2012

JOJA WENDT Piano Recital / Review

JOJA WENDT Piano Recital
DBS Arts Centre
Sunday (1 April 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 April 2012 with the title "Wendt plays for the fun of it".

It was the Scottish piano historian Kenneth Hamilton who opined that classical pianists have taken themselves much too seriously, turning recitals into fixtures which are endured rather than enjoyed. It is thus a huge relief that non-classical pianists have not read the script, and are still enthralling audiences out to have a good time.

The German pianist Joja Wendt is what certain piano circles refer to as a specialist in “novelty piano”, a catch-all phrase to cover popular historical sub-genres such as ragtime, stride and boogie woogie. I would prefer to call him a darned good entertainer.

From his opening piece, almost improvised at will, one could discern his classical training. Not surprising for someone from Hamburg, the city which also gave the world Mendelssohn and Brahms, the latter honing his keyboard skills playing in bordellos. There was nothing sleazy to Wendt’s art, which had a combination of his three passions: classical, jazz and boogie woogie.

The first was probably the least striking. His arrangement of Die holle rache (Queen of the Night’s Aria) from Mozart’s Magic Flute was unremarkable except for its ending which spoofed Beethoven’s tendency for interminable conclusions and cadences. His jazz stylings relived the prestidigitation of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, but his true metier was in the rhythmic rumblings of boogie woogie.

In a way, this is a 20th century updating of the 18th century Mozartean Alberti bass, with lots of bells and whistles thrown in. One number incorporated sleights of hand from his three idols, Pete Johnson, Meade “Lux” Evans and Albert Ammons, each more elaborate than the last. In his own version of Chattanooga Choo Choo, he engaged the audience by getting them to simulate the train’s horn-call. Finger-snapping and hand-rubbing simulated the rain in his original piece Singapore Sling, which shared similar stains with Here Comes The Sun.

The sponsors of this non-ticketed event benefited from some slick product-placement on Wendt’s part, including Singapore Repertory Theatre, Steinway Gallery and Audi. The latter had a hilarious dedication in Audi Boogie Woogie, a souvenir of his eventful road-trip on an Audi through the Swiss Alps. With the aid of smoke machine and hydraulics, the Steinway grand pitched back and forth like a beat-up jalopy (above). Not exactly Vorsprung durch Technik, but who cares?

And the encores, there were five in total. The locals greatly appreciated his inclusion of Teresa Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart in a duet with Steinway Gallery’s Celine Goh. SSO concertmaster Alexander Souptel on violin (above) then chipped in an unrehearsed medley of Monti’s Csardas, Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee, all rendered in boogie woogie. Now who said pianists cannot have fun at work?

Joja Wendt as stand-up comedian:

"I would like to thank my parents for making this evening possible, and thank my children for making it necessary."

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