Sunday, 29 June 2014


MediaCorp Television Theatre
Friday (27 June 2014)

After too many years of purveying programming mediocrity, Singapore’s only classical radio station Symphony 92.4FM has finally come up with a project that is laudable and worthwhile preserving. Its Young Talent Project, now in its third year, is a music competition that identifies top young classical talent in the nation under the age of 15 years.

It is almost an equivalent of the well-established BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition in the United Kingdom, which has helped established the careers of artists like Nicola Benedetti, Jennifer Pike, Emma Johnson and Freddy Kempf, just to name a few “big names” in today’s classical musical scene. Even those who participated but did not win included the likes of Stephen Hough, Barry Douglas, Steven Osborne, Benjamin Grosvenor and Michael Collins. Not too shabby indeed.

Past winners and finalists of the BBC Young Musician
of the Year Competition are a stellar cast indeed.
Can Singapore do the same thing?

In many ways, this MediaCorp initiative complements the National Piano & Violin Competition (NPVC, organised by the National Arts Council) but has a couple of significant advantages. First, it features instrumentalists other than pianists and violinists, including voices, and secondly, it enjoys the coverage of mass media like television and radio. A winner of this competition could actually become a media celebrity if there is adequate follow-up in succeeding years. This competition does hark back to the halcyon years of television’s Talentime in the 1960s through early 80s, which has all but been replaced by reality television’s Singapore Idol and similar programmes. Was it not in one of the early Talentime episodes that violinist Lynnette Seah (Singapore Symphony’s Co-Leader) won a prize for her performance of Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs?    

I was fortunate to be able to attend this year’s Gala Concert which highlighted the top 10 talents of 2014, and was pleasantly surprised by the very high quality of the performances. The event was not aired “live”, which explained a somewhat slack and laid back feel to the proceedings, which ran almost to three hours. True to television rather than a live concert, all the instruments were amplified, often to the disadvantage of the performances. There was a artificially reverberant and swimmy acoustic throughout all performances, and the pianists bore the brunt of this. But I am quite certain that it will all look and sound very nice on the boob-tube come 5 July on the Okto channel.

Here are my observations of the young talents and their performances. Everyone was on the top of their game and there were to be no ciphers among them.

The first to perform, JOLENE CHEN (12 years, piano) set the bar very high with an impressive reading of the Glinka-Balakirev The Lark. The Russian folksong has a simple melody, which came through very well above the ornamental filigree. The technically tricky cadenzas were also overcome with impeccable technique and relative ease. My verdict: A very accomplished performance.

The only harpist in this cohort is SAPPHIRE HO (14), who had attracted a very large following to the studio, including the entire I-Sis Trio. Like the earlier performer, her work was another Russian showpiece, Walter-Kuene’s Eugene Onegin Fantasy based on themes from Tchaikovsky’s opera. Fairly similar to Paul Pabst’s fantasy on the same for piano, this rehashes the famous Waltz and Lenski’s Aria to great effect, and Sapphire never let the tension slacken for a moment. Even if there were a few minor hitches along the way, but the performance was very assured and she can only get better. Verdict: Another winning reading.

The first violinist to perform was JOEY LAU (14) who performed Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) accompanied by Lim Yan on piano. Sometimes this work feels overplayed but Joey prevented it from sounding trite or bored. She got most of the technical tricks in the first movement spot on, and was all sweetness in the short slow movement. The rip-roaring finale played to her strengths, and she does instil a genuine gypsy elan to the proceedings. Verdict: Brava! 

DANIEL LOO (11, piano) is the archetypal talent one invariably encounters in the Junior Category of the National Piano & Violin Competition. He is honed to perfection in playing a handful of set-pieces, polished to a fine sheen and blest with the requisite showmanship. Not a note was missed in Debussy’s Prelude from Pour le piano, and the reverberant sound militates to his favour. Its sweeping glissandi are excellently executed and he adds a theatrical pumping of the fist at the end of the work for dramatic effect. Verdict: Epitome of pianist as kung fu exponent.    

Little DAN YUET IAN (8, cello) has the cute factor working for him but he does not know it yet. One is amazed who someone this young has already mastered all the notes in Popper’s Hungarian Fantasy, a thorny showpiece which brings together many familiar melodies which may be found in a number of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. Its difficulties are just swept away as nonchalantly as water off a duck’s back and his brilliant ending brings out many cheers from the audience. Verdict: Have we already found a winner?

I had earlier heard CHEN TIANQI (12, violin) a month ago in Suzhou, where he won 1st prize in the Suzhou-Singapore Young Talents Competition. Part of his prize was an all-expenses paid trip here to perform for the big prize. If anything, he performed even better here, displaying a very secure technique in the 1st movement of de Beriot’s Violin Concerto No.7, including a fearsome series of double-stops from its outset. He has a clear and generous tone, and makes the work sound better than it is. Verdict: Suzhou’s best is an even match with Singapore’s best.

MAXIMUS RENJIRO (9, piano) is the regional champion of Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation in the world and Singapore’s immediate neighbour. Talent abounds in that nation and what I heard is a tiny tip of an iceberg. Maximus performed two of the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms from Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, which is an unusually narrow choice of repertoire. Fast and voluminous playing seems to be the order here, and while there is no doubting his talent, perhaps a better selection could have served his cause better. Verdict: A natural talent who could shine further in more appropriate repertoire.   

KAELYN SOH (8, violin) is also blessed with the cute factor, and she knows it all too well. This attribute is maxed to perfect effect in her fearless performance of Sarasate’s Scherzo-Tarantella. Not only does she get all the notes, she seems to be thoroughly enjoying the entire process. With the television camera zooming in, her facial expressions are fully captured; there is no grimacing or fake posturing, only broad smiles, and the music smiles with her from start to finish. Verdict: A certain winner, and let us hope she can further develop from this.    

ZANTHA TAN (14, piano) is at the upper age-limit of the competition and that maturity is reflected in her playing of Granados’s Allegro de Concierto. It is a coruscating showpiece, and she brings out all its details, including a singing line that could easily have been lost in the torrents of flying notes. A passionate and very confident performer who will soon be at the crossroads of what she wants to do with her life. Verdict: If she opts for music, she will do very well.

AODEN TEO (12, cello) is already a winner, having snagged the HSBC Youth Excellence Award for musical talent worth $200,000 last year. So the $2000 of this competition seems like small beer. He gave a repeat performance of Saint-Saens’ First Cello Concerto, but only played its first movement. This does not actually end with a strong cadence but instead fades away to nothing, which proves an anti-climax. He displays a strong technique, with good and healthy sound but one feels he could have come up with a better choice of work for this competition. Verdict: Does not really need to win this one.  

The jury of conductor turned MediaCorp Vice-President Wang Ya-Hui, virtuoso violinist Siow Lee-Chin, double-bass player Wei Yung-Chiao and NAC bigwig Pearl Samuel took almost an eternity to make their decision. In the meantime, the audience was treated by performances of previous winners and other stand-outs from the competition.

This photo gives you an idea how young and tiny
these massive talents actually are.
The winner Kaelyn Soh is third from the right,
beside the two youngest players who are 7 years old.

The overall winner who receives $2000 and a scholarship for masterclasses by the Amadeus Academy in Vienna was KAELYN SOH. Not a great surprise here. The winner of the $2000 Symphony 92.4FM prize was SAPPHIRE HO, while the Audience Prize of $1000 went to DAN YUET IAN. Congratulations all around.

This competition holds great promise, and I can see it expanding over the years to come. If taken on with greater support from the National Arts Council, it can become a national event akin to the NPVC, one that highlights a wider range of instrumentalists, not just pianists and violinists. The usual complaint that the NAC does not support cello, bass, woodwind, brass, percussion players and singers can be easily addressed with the merging of the two competitions. The publicity from television and radio would further enhance the profile of the competition. Furthermore, the upper age limit may be raised to 18, like the BBC competition, which will attract more mature talent (wind, brass players and singers take a little longer to mature), not just the cute ones. 

I look forward to the 2015 edition, which I am sure will be equally enthralling.

All photos courtesy of MediaCorp Symphony 92.4FM.

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