Friday, 30 June 2017

THE ODYSSEY / HEEGAN LEE Piano Recital / Review

Heegan Lee Piano Recital
Esplanade Recital Studio
Wednesday (28 June 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 June 2017 with the title "Piano savant takes on Chopin and Jay Chou in debut recital".

There have been famous cases of concert pianists making careers despite learning the piano at a relatively late age. The legendary Russian Sviatoslav Richter and more recently, Frenchman Lucas Debargue (finalist of the 2016 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition), are well-known.

Singapore has her own such talent in 26-year-old Heegan Lee, who received lessons at 14 after he was noted playing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto upon viewing a DVD. Diagnosed to be a “prodigious musical savant”, he graduated with a Master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music in 2014.

Far from appearing like some schizoid Glenn Gould-like character, he is a personable young man with lots of charisma, much of which showed in his 150-minute long debut recital. The first half was purely classical, opening with four Rachmaninov pieces. There was much to admire in his handling of complex counterpoint and fussy filigree in Arcadi Volodos' transcription of the Andante (from the Cello Sonata) and Earl Wild's version of Vocalise.

Both are extremely difficult, but he whipped them off with much to spare. The song-like passages and effulgent Romantic spirit were fully upheld. This suffusion sometimes felt overdone in Rachmaninov originals, such as the rumbling Musical Moment No.4 (Op.16 No.4) and Prélude in G sharp minor (Op.32 No.12).

Over-pedalling became an issue in three Chopin pieces, smudging textures and submerging the prodigious fingerwork. Nonetheless his technical achievement in the Fantaisie-Impromptu, Ballade No.4 and Revolutionary Etude was enviable. In the last, the use of right hand octaves instead of spreading the running passage to both hands at its conclusion was an audacious sleight of hand.

Much of the long second half was, by his own admission, hotel lounge and elevator music. Here Lee seemed more at home playing popular melodies by Yiruma (River Flows In You and Kiss The Rain) and Kevin Kern (Sundial Dreams). In Secret Garden (Song From A Secret Garden), the art of preluding was relived, playing the opening bars of Chopin's C minor Prélude before segueing into the piece proper.

Lee's own original composition The Journey, written for a video commercial, followed along these New Age influenced lines, closing with upwardly-mobile arpeggios like a neo-Bachian chorale. With the recital proper over, he played pop-like improvisations on short themes and motifs offered by members of the audience. This aspect of pianism is now a lost art. How refreshing to see it being revived, even on its own popular music-inflected terms.

A young piano student was given a chance
to provide a short theme for Heegan to improvise on.

There was a long encore segment, which included a 15-minute long medley of Jay Chou hit songs and a mash-up of two JJ Lin numbers. By this time, the audience was melting away with people making to the door while he was still playing.

However disrespectful that was, Lee was undeterred by offering yet more short pieces by Joe Hisaishi (Spirited Away), Manuel Ponce (Intermezzo in E minor) and finally Francis Poulenc (Novelette No.3). This was a lot of piano music indeed, but when performed this lovingly, what matters? 

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