Tuesday, 27 February 2018

CIRCULO / TO Ensemble / Review

TO Ensemble
Play Den, The Arts House
Sunday (25 February 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 February 2018 with the title "Musings of childhood days and memories".

One never knows what to expect in a TO Ensemble concert. In Circulo, the ensemble was pared down to just composer Tze Toh on piano and guest flautist Roberto Alvarez from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, supported by Akileshvar VM (percussion) and Wendy Phua (electric bass), and a bawling infant.

How an infant-in-arms was even admitted into a formal ticketed concert remained a mystery. Providing an unscripted high-pitched counterpoint for the longest part of the music's duration, it raised concerns but nothing was done. It, however, did little to faze the performers who stuck to their jobs by being simply brilliant.

Unlike past concerts, there were no post-apocalyptic back-story or survival tales to be told but the three suites that formed the narrative roughly united Alvarez's hometown of Asturias on the northern Spanish coast and Tze's Singapore. Both included sea-faring cultures and there was a pervasive element of nostalgia, fondly looking back at childhood days and memories.

The Prologue opened atmospherically with the piano's gentle musings, then accompanied by intakes and outtakes of breath on the flute but no notes. This was the wind, from small blasts to swirling eddies before the emergence of a simple folk-like melody.

Chapter One was The Sea, with a rhythmic dance and percussively staccato beat from the flute in Asturias. City / Metropolis 2018 and The Adventure continued with a busier and more upbeat pace, when drums and bass joined in. The Spanish vibe turned more Middle Eastern in feel, with interesting harmonic progressions hammered out on piano.

The Myths And Legends of Chapter Two began with a playful etude-caprice on solo flute, almost a superhuman effort in breath control in The Boy, The Pirate And The Magician. Piano and percussion entered in Satyvaan Savithri which alternated hypnotically between G major and G minor. Despite its Indian title, was the influence Moorish? And how much further before reaching Singapore?

Deep piano rumblings provided a Lisztian mood to Nuberu / The Cloud Master, matched by equally dark colours from the flute, but this soon morphed from night to day with a jazzy romp to conclude the chapter.     

All through this, the baby did its best to colour the proceedings. But then for stretches, quiet prevailed. Had music the charms to soothe the savage beast? No, timely spots of spontaneous breastfeeding in full view of the audience did the trick.

Circulo, the third chapter, began with a nocturne or night piece. A balmy, echo-filled and somewhat oppressive solo flute introduction gave way to the piano's more active arpeggios. All fetters were then thrown off in Fiesta, where all four players broke out in an all-out Cuban dance. How much was scored, and how much was improvised was only best known to the performers themselves.

The final movement, Child's Play, was unabashedly Romantic in feel. By now, the baby and its family – the only local element discernible – had left the hall. Anyway, thanks for the mammaries.

Both Tze and Roberto shared freely
in the post-concert discussion.
A new take on the programme's cover!

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