Monday, 9 July 2018


Chamber @ The Arts House
Saturday (7 July 2018)

Anybody who has followed the youth classical music scene in Singapore over recent years will know of the immense body of talent that exists today on our island. I had a mere glimpse of it again in the I Play Yamaha Concert held last Saturday at The Arts House. This was the grand opening of an outreach programme of the Japanese piano giant to showcase local pianistic talent in various platforms over the next two years. Seven pianists were showcased – 5 Yamaha Young Artists and 2 Yamaha Artists – at the this concert. Tellingly, all seven of them had been or are still students of the School of Young Talents (SYT) at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).

The Yamaha Young Artists, aged from 13 to 16 years old, were heard first. First to perform was Adrian Tang Zhi Feng (13), the youngest of the performers. One would not have guessed that in his reading of the 1st movement from Beethoven's Sonata in C minor (Op.10 No.1). There was fire and passion in this early Beethoven sonata, yet he exhibited very fine control, contrasting the jagged dotted rhythms with legato lines. Arguably better was Chopin's early Variations Brillante Op.12 on Ludovic Halevy's Je vend scapulaires, where he easily mastered the fussy filigree with accuracy and aplomb. There was also some very nuanced playing that distinguished this from the mindless note-spinning of the early Romantics. He completed his programme with Mutsuo Shishido's Toccata, dry percussive notes executed in rapid-fire that simulated brilliant koto playing.

16-year-old Nicole Tay Wan Ni is already a multiple prize-winner in numerous competitions, and she showed her mettle in the 1st movement of Beethoven's Sonata in B flat major Op.22. Her confident reading highlighted a more lyrical approach, and there was an attempt to approximate a symphonic sound in her crisply articulated and crystal-clear playing. Only in Chopin's Ballade No.1 in G minor (Op.23) did she betray some nervousness. The opening was taken very deliberately, and the work's full range of emotions were not fully realised. There were also some technical issues, but she has a whole life ahead of her to grow into this masterpiece, and that I have full confidence in.

Daniel Loo Kang Le (15) produced a shimmering pearly sound on the Yamaha C7X in Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections on the Water) from Images Book I. His pedalling was excellent, coaxing this dreamy musing in the fluid realm to a grand climax. Just as good was his Tchaikovsky Dumka, bringing a right feel of pathos to this Slavic lament and then revelling in the ensuing short variations. Bringing out  the spectacular in this blustery single-movement piece was his aim, and he nailed it brilliantly.

Lim Shi Han (16) had technically the most difficult programme to pull off, and she did so with a seemingly fearless disregard to the multitudes of notes to scale. The choice of two Capriccios (Nos.5 and 8) from Brahms' Klavierstucke Op.76 was a coup in itself, as these represent some of the German's most tricky pieces since the fearsome Paganini Variations. The smouldering intent, restless unease and big sonorities came through, and the sense of ecstacy almost boiled over in the final number. My favourite performance of the evening was her view of Ravel's Alborada del gracioso (The Jester's Morning Dance) from Miroirs, as she clearly has the Spanish rhythmic spirit well within her grasp and was not afraid to let fly in those glittering glissandi.       

The Young Artist segment closed with lanky Jem Zhang Yifan (16), who is already well-known from his wins at the recent National Piano Competition and Steinway Competition. His showpieces reveal that is superbly well-drilled and there is little more to desire from his joyous account of Debussy's L'Isle Joyeuse, which built up ever some inexorably from the opening trills to its final romp. He knows exactly what he's all about, also in Filipenko's hair-raising Toccata, with its machine-gun repeated notes and chords, from its outset to a grandstanding finish. His was a short programme, but what fireworks he generated.

Another of my favourite performances came from Lily Phee (19), a Yamaha Artist (17-25 year old category) and also the most mature performer this evening, chronologically and musically. In Schumann's Novellette Op.21 No.1 in B flat major, she displayed a very good understanding of the Romantic idiom. Big and rich sonorous chords resounded at its opening, later well-contrasted by its lyrical second subject. While Horowitz's famous recording has always left me cold, I immediately warmed up to her playing, which had none of those idiosyncrasies or agogic phrasing. Her excellent recital was rounded off with all three movements of Debussy's Pour le piano, with brawn and boldness in the Prelude, tenderness with gravitas in the Sarabande, and mercurial lightness for the Toccata. She is definitely a name to watch for the future.

The final performer was Ashley Chua (17) who displayed much heart-on-sleeve passion in Chopin's Scherzo No.2 in B flat minor. There was some clipped phrasing and she was not always completely accurate, but that comes from going for broke and throwing caution to the winds, something I will always appreciate in performance. In Debussy's final Prelude, Feux d'artifice (Fireworks), sparks and flashes streaked the air in an incandescent reading. The Danzas Argentinas Nos.2 and 3 by Alberto Ginastera completed the evening's fine fare, and while I will not reference Argerich, it was a very invigorating way to end.

It is hoped that more from these young talents get heard in further presentations by Yamaha Music (Asia). Guest-of-honour Professor Bernard Tan (above) from the Singapore Musicians' Guild intimated that performers of high calibre and platforms for performances were short in supply 40-50 years ago in Singapore, but the climate and ground has now changed for the better for professional music-making here. Work still needs to be done, and this initiative is a step in the right direction.     


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