Tuesday, 7 July 2015

...AND DELIVER US FROM... / NICHOLAS LOH Piano Recital / Review

NICHOLAS LOH Piano Recital
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (5 July 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 July 2015 with the title "Speaking pianist toots horn".

After returning from his post-graduate musical studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, Singaporean pianist Nicholas Loh has established himself as a fervent exponent of new music. His first solo recital since 2009 (when he performed works by John Sharpley, Frederic Rzewski and Nikolai Kapustin) was to be as cutting edge, and controversial to boot.

There was an underlying theme of protest in his latest offering, which opened with Latvian composer Peteris Vasks' Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Its Mozartian title belied the music's wide dynamic range, with spectral harmonies and Debussyan chords, then progressing to rapid figurations, repeated notes and sonorous bell sounds. Dispelling the idea of night as a haven of solace, this was more of a nightmarish scenario which ended with Loh plucking the lowest strings of the Yamaha grand piano.

The World Premiere of young Singaporean composer Bertram Wee's a little book of lies marked a new chapter in local piano writing. Although the idiom through its five movements was atonal, the violence portrayed was easily recognisable. The work was an indictment against organised religion, dogmatism and extremism, the sort that resulted in the tragedies of 911, Bali bombings and Charlie Hebdo shootings. 

No specific faith was named, as Loh emerged with sawn-off gloves and uncovered socks to perform. Listeners got the message that intolerance comes via slurs, murmurs and innuendos rather than fire and brimstone sermons. The exception was the central movement, the comedy of ignorance, with the keyboard assaulted by forearm clusters, sweeping glissandi and a stamp from the foot to complete the final insult. Wee, who studies at London's Royal College of Music, is a name to watch.

The final work was the American Rzewski's De Profundis, a 35-minute long melodrama that required a “speaking pianist” to recite, sing, pummel himself and toot on a bicycle horn amongst other things. Its text, of which Loh gave a most lucid and nuanced reading, was taken from letters by Oscar Wilde when he was incarcerated in Reading Gaol for the crime of homosexuality. Here was not a self-pitying or crusading rant, but a sobering statement of utter hopelessness, despair and ultimately sorrow, a word that appears on multiple occasions.

Loh is a natural storyteller, both while playing, acting and singing (which was very much in tune too), who left the small but very engaged audience with little doubt about his abilities and sympathies. Intolerance and hate crimes are surely suffocating the world, yet it seems politically incorrect to voice out against them publicly. This recital was one small but important step taken in the right direction.      

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