I do not usually go to concerts organised by schools and that has been my loss. When Singaporean composer and pianist Denise Lee invited me to attend a concert by the school piano ensemble she coaches, I agreed to go partly to enjoy the music, and partly to relive my student days, though not as a pianist (I was a terrible one) but as an organiser of piano concerts (still streets better than my piano playing even today). This is surely a sign of middle-age catching up when you begin to look back on your student years with more fondness than embarrassment.
Back in 1982, I helped organise Raffles Junior College's first Arts Festival concert. In those days, all you needed to do was to round up a few Music Elective Programme students who could play the piano, extract a few minutes from their ABRSM Grade 8 or LRSM Diploma programmes, mix and match repertoire, and voila, you have a semblance of a concert. Next, you hire a grand piano from one of the many piano companies on Serangoon Road, and hold the concert in the school hall (with terrible acoustics, plus the piano is placed on the floor rather than on stage in order not to get in the way of the ballet dancers). Today, things are more sophisticated, as this concert by the National Junior College Piano Ensemble proved.
Every self-respecting educational institution in Singapore has a piano ensemble of its own. The ostensible aim is to promote and improve standards of piano playing, and give young pianists (who are otherwise soloists) a chance to work with other musicians. Hopefully they will learn to enjoy piano repertoire in the process, leading them to become future audiences for piano recitals and festivals (and that is my fervent prayer).
The programme presented by these young people was ambitious to say the least. There were no solos but works for two pianos played on 9-foot Steinways at Esplanade Recital Studio. The concert began with Busoni's transcription of Mozart's Magic Flute Overture, and then movements from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich's Suite, Debussy's En blanc et noir and Samuel Barber's Souvenirs came on.
All the pieces were played from memory, which was most impressive except when the pianists got into a fix. With no recourse of a score to rely upon, that meant some moments of fumbling around before finding their way. That could be distressing to say the least. Fortunately most of the kids got through their pieces unscathed. The ensemble's teachers Denise and Seow Aik Keong had their own piece too, a polished reading of Chopin's rarely played Rondo in C major Op.73.
Also rather impressive was the fact that two of the school's percussion players were roped in to perform the finale of Bartok's Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. Despite an initial tentativeness, the foursome of Sylvia Chan, Tong Hien Chi and the percussionists (unfortunately not credited) acquitted themselves very well, hurtling over the music's thorniest passages with relative ease. It was a performance to be proud of.
The balance of the concert was filled with mostly Russian music, including movements from Arensky's Suite No.1, Rachmaninov's Suite No.2 and Kabalevsky's Third Piano Concerto. There was even time for a Piazzolla tango, played by two boys, Paul Yuen and Isaac Ho. Again these were more than competently done, however I do have the niggling feel that the pianists were so busily absorbed in getting their own parts right that they do not always listen to their partners (something akin to most marriages), but with time, more practice and patience comes the road to perfection and ultimate happiness.
The piece de resistance of the evening had to be two thirds of Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos, accompanied by no less than the school orchestra (every self-respecting school in Singapore has one too) conducted by Han Oh (one-time violist of the T'ang Quartet). It must have been daunting to play this so soon after Katia and Marielle Labeque with the SSO, but the four young ladies on the keyboards had little concept of fear.
To say they played well would be an understatement. The Mozartean slow movement came through beautifully from Sylvia Chan and Tong Hien Chi (they must be the ensemble's star duo) while the coruscating finale was dispatched with much flair by Deborah Koh and Claire Marie Lim. The orchestral playing, though not always subtle, was alert and committed.
It was a long evening, but for the 13 students (10 girls and just 3 boys) it was an effort to be remembered for a long time to come. After all, how many people can say they performed on a Steinway grand piano at the Esplanade?
All photos courtesy of NJC Photographic Society.