Saturday, 7 January 2017

MUSIC FOR A SUMMER DAY / Nicholas Loh, Shane Thio, Sng Yiang Shan & Eugene Toh / Review

Nicholas Loh & Shane Thio, Pianos
Sng Yiang Shan & Eugene Toh, Percussion
Lee Foundation Theatre
Thursday (5 January 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 January 2017 with the title "Beauty amid chaos".

The piano is a percussion instrument because it makes music when metal wires are struck by hammers. It is in fact the most highly-evolved of all percussion as it can be made to sing or sound like an orchestra. This innovative and very engaging concert of 20th century music for piano and percussion proved that, and some more.

Its first half presented American avant-garde composer George Crumb's Music For A Summer Evening (1974), also known as Makrokosmos III, a reference to Hungarian composer Bela Bartok's Mikrokosmos for piano. Its five movements showcased the pianos – amplified and with their lids removed – played in every conceivable manner possible alongside a battery of percussion.

Crumb's enduring trademark was getting the pianists to play directly on the piano's strings, either by plucking, scraping, striking or “preparing” with foreign objects, thus not limiting its scope to 88 depressed keys. The effect was at once mystical and ethereal with an array of tinkling, metallic bell sounds, alternating with loud and violent crashes when the score demands for it.

At certain points, pianist Nicholas Loh had to drop a crotale (a small metal cymbal) heavily onto the strings, or slide a stick over the gourd-like guiro while letting its sound reflect against the strings. Percussionists Sng Yiang Shan and Eugene Toh were themselves busy with their “kitchen” department, which included shaking a large metal sheet, rattling a flexatone, sliding bows on cymbals and non-percussive activity like vocalising, playing a recorder and blowing on slide whistles. Everything save the kitchen sink.

All this seems to suggest a work of anarchic disorder and total chaos, but reality was something else. Well-structured and economically choreographed, there were many instances of transcending beauty eloquently expressed, including Messiaen-like birdcalls, and in the final movement Music Of The Starry Night, a Bachian chorale that echoed through to the work's serene and quiet end.

The second half was devoted to Bartok's masterpiece Sonata For Two Pianos & Percussion (1937), considered the “grandfather” of all piano-percussion works. Its three movements seemed comparatively straight forward and even conservative, but more than made up with its sheer density of themes and textures.      
It mysterious opening was very well-judged with Toh's timpani slide and low piano octaves from Shane Thio, one of two pianists in its Singapore premiere over 20 years ago. The pace gathered and sonorities piled up in counterpoint for the 1st movement's virile main theme. Despite the music's percussiveness which led up to the climactic syncopated fugue, there was no shaking off the notion of Bachian influence.

What about the middle movement's “night music”, comprising ostinato figures and incisive interjections? Resembling the scurrying nocturnal world of birds and insects, were these also not heard in earlier music?  Loud applause and cheers greeted the conclusion of the Hungarian folk dance-influenced finale for the performers' fastidious efforts, but credit also goes to the symmetry of excellent programming by bringing Bartok and Crumb together.     

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