Monday, 9 September 2013

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY / T'ang Quartet / Review

T’ang Quartet
School of the Arts Concert Hall
Saturday (7 September 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 September 2013 with the title "Fresh sounds from veteran quartet".

It is hard to believe that the T’ang Quartet, Singapore’s first and only professional chamber group, is now 21 years old. In 1992, violinists Ng Yu Ying and Ang Chek Meng, violist Lionel Tan and cellist Leslie Tan, all in their 20s while members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra gave their first concert at Victoria Concert Hall.

Besides their obvious musical passion, what also stood out were their attitude and sense of fashion. Clad in designer wear for gigs, posing topless in strange locations for photo shoots, the foursome actually made it cool to like chamber music. One musical colleague quipped that they had yet to grow up. That might sound like a barb, but this reviewer regards this as a virtue.

A refusal to equate maturity with ageing, and a continual pursuit to find eternal youth and joy in musical truths seems to be their credo. Except for the evolution of hairstyles and facial fur on the Tan brothers, the quartet pretty much appears the same as they were two decades ago.

Attired in loose fitting greyish coats by Depression, which made them look like Confederate extras in a Gettysburg movie set, they played sitting on non-matching chairs by Grafunkt. Typical of their attention-seeking style, but their vision in music-making remains undimmed. Their 21st anniversary concert, as the title suggested, comprised wholly of Bohemian and Czech repertoire.

Dvorak's “American” Quartet in F major (Op.96) has been a loyal warhorse for the T’angs. Previously coached by teacher-mentor Jiri Heger, the Czech former SSO viola principal, their calling card work resounded with a freshness that belied its familiarity. The drumming rhythms of the outer movements were buoyant, over which the violins sang and soared. The slow movement, a cross between Slavic dumka and Afro-American spiritual, made time stand still.

Just as trenchant a performance was accorded the First String Quartet by Erwin Schulhoff, a Czech-Jew who died in the Nazi Holocaust. The unison sound achieved in the driving Presto opening was frightening in its intensity, as were the various sound effects yielded in its three other movements. Vigorous folk music coloured its course, but it was the poignantly quiet ending that was most haunting.

Smetana’s autobiographical First String Quartet called “From My Life” closed this excellent concert. The declamatory viola solo at its outset set the tone for this mostly cheerful work, which recounts the eventful life of the “Musical father of Czech nationalism”. Beneath its joyous exterior, the quartet was able to find an underlying melancholy, later epitomised by the cello solo in the slow movement that truly tugged at the heartstrings.

Even more apparent was the finale, when Ng’s violin screeched the highest E (in harmonics), an allusion to the composer’s affliction of deafness, which put a damper on the celebrations before the work closed quietly. There is a real life parallel to that episode, as Ng had himself gone through a life-threatening illness for several months before recovering and making his welcome return.

Just before the quartet’s tongue-in-cheek encore of Shostakovich’s Polka from The Golden Age, Ng had these few words to the audience, “Bear with us… for another 21 years.” Those years will be precious ones indeed.          


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