Thursday, 28 February 2013

A TRIBUTE TO ONG LIP TAT (1955-2013), Great Singaporean Pianist and Teacher


It is with much sadness that we report the passing of ONG LIP TAT, one of Singapore’s finest pianists and renowned piano pedagogue, on 27 February 2013 at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital after a prolonged illness. He was a child prodigy and former student of Lucien Wang, who herself was a student of the great Alfred Cortot. He furthered his musical studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music and in Germany, before returning to Singapore where he became one of the nation’s most respected and well-loved piano teachers.

The list of his students reads like a Who’s Who of the Singaporean classical music scene (below), including conductor Wang Ya-Hui, composer Zechariah Goh Toh Chai, pianists Paul Liang, Timothy Ku, Soon Liok Kee, Elaine Chew, Albert Lin, Lee Pei Ming, Emily Wu Chia Ying, Xu Wei Chao and violinist Lee Shi Mei. He was also on the piano faculty of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

In January 1979, he was bestowed the honour of being the first soloist to appear with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, giving three performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 at its inaugural concerts conducted by Choo Hoey. More recently, he has also performed the Yellow River Concerto with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra led by Tsung Yeh.

Although he had a reputation of being a “formidable virtuoso” (The Singapore Encyclopaedia), his solo recitals were a relative rarity. He more often performed with other pianists in 4-hand piano concerts, accompanying violinists and singers, and making cameo appearances at the end of his students’ recitals where he would perform short but extremely virtuosic showpieces and then close the keyboard lid, much to the amusement of the audience.

Over the years: Ong Lip Tat with his teacher Lucien Wang, who was taught by Cortot himself. It was in her memory that he founded the Lucien Wang Piano Competition at NAFA (Photos: NUS Wiki)

He was known to be a very demanding but caring teacher, who was loved by his students. He was also extremely generous in praise and kind words. I remembered accompanying a singer and violinist in a Singapore Lyric Opera fundraising concert at Victoria Concert Hall, in which he also appeared as an accompanist for several sopranos. To appear on the same programme as Ong Lip Tat was an unnerving experience, but he was very encouraging and offered me reassuring words which calmed my jitters and enabled me not to make a complete fool of myself on stage.

It has been well-documented that he suffered from depression, which led to concert appearances and students’ lessons being cancelled at very short notice. In a rare interview with The Straits Times several years ago, he admitted to his ongoing struggles against depression and an attempt on his own life. It was also known that he was deeply affected by the recent death of his close friend and NAFA colleague, the Singaporean tenor Lim Shieh Yih.

What is less well known was his original piano compositions, which he would perform in recitals using plausible titles by established and obscure composers. It was perhaps his modest and retiring personality conflicting with his exuberant stage persona which led him to play these pieces without revealing their true origins. These were very well received judging by the audience applause, but was he afraid of rejection?

Back in the 1980s, I remembered hearing a radio broadcast of an Ong Lip Tat recital which concluded with an extremely virtuosic work – full of Lisztian fire and Busoni-like sonorities – revealed by the announcer to be a Sonata by Bouliaze. Over the years, I tried to find a recording and score of it but in vain. It certainly was too tonal and Romantic to be by Boulez. In the 1990s, he launched a CD of piano solos on the Pavane label, an eclectic programme with works by J.S.Bach, Liszt, Schubert, Zemlinsky and A.Dupré among the composers. Checking against compositional lists and catalogues of those composers on the Internet also failed to match those works with confirmed titles. In addition, a piece that came up in his recitals was Funeral Introduction by Max Reger.

The Ong Lip Tat Piano Solos recording on the Pavane label (1993), courtesy of record producer Gao Yang, another of Lip Tat's former students

The last time I heard him perform was several years ago at The Arts House, when he unveiled a Suite by Hans Poser, a Schubert Klavierstück Op. Posth and a A.Dupré Caprice Espagnol. An Internet search carried out the evening before revealed neither recordings nor documentation of these works in existence. It turns out that Hans Poser was no poseur, but a real composer who had been a WWII prisoner-of-war, but no suite for solo piano of his existed.

The concert was a success, and the virtuosic and modern-sounding Poser Suite in three movements, which resembled something by Hindemith, took many by surprise. The Schubert Klavierstück had several un-Schubert-like harmonic turns, while the A,Dupré Caprice was a different piece from the one on his CD recording. Post concert, I congratulated him on being a fine composer, while Peabody professor Marian Hahn added that there were very few pieces in the recital she was familiar with. Lip Tat looked surprised at my compliment, and when asked about the Dupré, he said that what he performed was Caprice Espagnol No.2, while the CD was a recording of Caprice Espagnol No.1. Needless to say, both pieces do not exist, and neither does A.Dupré. The better known Marcel Dupré was mostly a composer for the organ.               

I will conclude this tribute by declaring that Ong Lip Tat was not only a great Singaporean pianist, and also our most important pianist-composer, a figure akin to Rachmaninov, Busoni and Godowsky. One wonders whether he notated these extremely personable works. And if the scores do indeed exist, they represent a treasure trove in which Singaporean pianists, present and future, can certainly learn and revel in. His music and spirit lives on in our memories.   


Anonymous said...

Such a great tribute...thank you.

Anonymous said...

I was listening to his music on YouTube just now, and it was great! Thank you for your music, Mr Ong.

Anonymous said...

I just read the second anniversary obituary of Ong Lip Tat's death in the Straits Times. i then googled his name, and found your article. What you mentioned about Ong's compositions using various pseudonyms is fascinating. Apart from the musicians you have mentioned who have done so, there was also the violinist Fritz Kreisler, who wrote in the style of various other composers. I wonder if research to determine the sum total of Ong's compositions has been done. If not, this looks like worthy research for a musicologist to do in the future.

ERIC LEE said...