Monday 27 May 2024

THE SINGAPOREAN COMPOSERS SERIES / Teng Ensemble / Review

 

THE SINGAPOREAN COMPOSERS SERIES 
Teng Ensemble 
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre 
Friday (24 May 2024) 

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 May 2024 with the title "Audio-visual spectacle for Teng Ensemble's 20th anniversary".

For its 20th anniversary celebrations, the Teng Ensemble – renowned for its slick and funky pop concerts performed on Chinese instruments – devoted an entire concert of works by Singaporean composers. There were altogether ten pieces, each backed by the sophisticated use of audio electronics and projected moving images. All this made for an exuberant aural and visual spectacle. 

Teng Ensemble is a no-limits generator of ideas, always pushing the envelope and breaching boundaries. Whoever thought serious composers could countenance writing popular music? Or that jazz, pop and music production people would venture confidently into the classical realm? Teng Ensemble did and the results defied all expectations. 


The concert opened with Kelly Tang’s Kallang Uproar, composed for the 2010 Youth Olympics. One will not find a more upbeat work, channeling Brazilian samba and reliving Singapore’s long-gone glory days of soccer. Just five players, on pipa, sheng, cello, electric guitar and cajon (percussion), was all that was needed for just a bit of nostalgia. 


Erhu and guzheng joined in for 14-year-old composing prodigy Nathanael Koh’s Soaring, imagining an eagle’s celestial flight with the traditional sonata form coloured by a Malay kompang’s incessant beat. Just intoxicating. 


Soul Dot SG is a music production collective of three artists, whose Empowered was supposedly infused with K-pop, but sounded far more than that. Was this a fusion with Middle Eastern and Indo-Malay influences as well? 


Erhu and cello dominated the melodic lines in George Leong’s entertaining Oriental Psyche, with hip hop rhythms that radiated inner city vibes. Evan Low’s Concrete Jungle was a local variation of the traditional railway genre piece, with the rolling rhythm of MRT trains accompanied by stunning time-lapse photography. 




The concert’s third chapter entered terra incognita with the evening’s most modern sounding music. Phoon Yu’s A Transi For The Common Man opened with solo pipa, then erupting into fugue-like counterpoint (with more in common with Aaron Copland than J.S.Bach) before closing with the pipa’s return. 



Koh Cheng Jin’s A.I.Funk went even further by being an atonal passacaglia. With quasi-improvisational flourishes built on a rhythmic ground bass, it sounded surprisingly approachable. With borders between old and new, East and West, classical and pop, being irreversibly blurred, Chok Kerong’s breezy musical odyssey titled Seafarer, sandwiched between Phoon and Koh, claimed a happy middle ground. 



The final group of pieces employed the largest number of players, twelve in the case of Bang Wenfu’s The Nine Suns, a cinematic score inspired by Louis Cha’s wuxia (martial arts) novels. Heroic and pugilistic in most part, this is music of flexed muscles and stretched sinews. 



Teng’s co-founders Samuel Wong (pipa) and Yang Ji Wei (sheng) made the ensemble 14-strong, uniting three generations of musicians in Chow Junyi, Joel Nah and Wong’s Harmony. This final work shoe-horned old local and classic tunes like Jinkli Nona, Suriram, Xiao Bai Chuan (Little White Boat) and Han Tian Lei (Thunder In Drought) into a glorious symphonic summation.





For the record, the Teng Ensemble raised over 640 thousand dollars on the first evening of fund-raising. Bravissimo, and may you continue to create more Music For Good!


Tuesday 21 May 2024

THE PAVEL HAAS QUARTET / Review

 

THE PAVEL HAAS QUARTET
VCHpresents Chamber
Victoria Concert Hall 
Sunday (19 May 2024) 

This review was first published on Bachtrack.com on 20 May 2024 with the title "Pavel Haas Quartet’s triumphant, all-Bohemian Singapore debut".

This has been a bumper year for Bohemian music in Singapore. Either visionary planning or pure happenstance might explain the performance glut, including Dvorak’s Piano Trio No.3 (by Aoi Trio, Japan) and Piano Quintet No.2 (More Than Music, Singapore), Smetana’s Piano Trio and Dvorak’s String Quintet No.2 (Singapore Symphony musicians), all within a space of few months. Now cue the Singapore debut of multiple Gramophone Award-winning Pavel Haas Quartet from Prague, undoubtedly the jewel in the crown. 


Established in 1992, its present iteration of violinists Veronika Jarůšková (the sole remaining founding member) and Marek Zwiebel, violist Šimon Truszka and cellist Peter Jarůšek showed exactly why the quartet’s recordings have been so highly rated. Live and in person, PHQ sounds even better. In Josef Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St Wenceslas” serving as a prelude, refined and smooth-as-silk playing was immediately apparent, from the opening viola voice and when the others joined in. Gossamer lightness soon built up arch-like in intensity, to a passionate climax resembling Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio. As Czech nationalism’s rallying cry during the Second World War, there could not have been a more poignant statement. 


The main programme showcased two autobiographical works, the first being Bedřich Smetana’s First String Quartet, “From My Life”, a heart-on-sleeve account of personal trials and tribulations. The opening E minor chord, resolute and defiant, set the dramatic tone, coming with brutal honesty without being histrionic. One could just admire and wallow in the rich sonorities, with suppleness and malleability of textures being added extras. The second movement’s Allegro moderato a la Polka was pure and unadulterated joy, punctuated by pauses which bear special significance later on. 


The slow movement was treated as the work’s vital beating heart, with lyrical solos from cello and first violin, and a big passionate chordal statement to hammer home the point. As the foursome literally flew out of the traps for the finale, what could put a halt to its irrepressible gaiety? The hitherto carefree ride would encounter that fateful pause, the terminal speed-bump, with Jarůšková’s violin “stricken” with high-pitched tinnitus. This was Smetana’s musical representation of irremediable deafness, borne of untreated syphilis. With this final damper, the work closed on subdued pizzicatos. In this unforgettable performance, PHQ showed what life was all about. 

The second autobiographical work was Leoš Janáček’s Second String Quartet or Intimate Letters, inspired by an unrequited love for a married woman 37 years his junior. The married Janáček wrote over 700 letters to Kamila Stösslová, whom he met in 1917, until his death eleven years later. Unlike Smetana, Janáček’s secrets were not so readily revealed. His stock-in-trade musical idiom, of repeated short motifs, harmonic dissonances, jagged ostinatos and a rare transcendent lyricism, would dominate in this four-movement underrated classic. 


Sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge) effects lent a wiry and uncomfortably edgy resonance, colouring the mood of the score. Also ear-catching were moments alternating between discordance, melody and whimsicality, seemingly random but reflecting the composer’s conflicted state of mind, flailing between turmoil and torment. While not an easy listen, PHQ’s virtuosity and unstinting advocacy made for a totally gripping experience. After so much freneticism, the sole encore was a welcome balm, in Dvorak’s Ó duše drahá jedinká (Thou Only, Dear One), the ninth of his Cypresses


This review is dedicated to the memory of Jiri Heger (1946-2023), former principal violist of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and true-blooded Bohemian. He would have absolutely loved this concert. 

Star Rating: *****

The original review on Bachtrack.com may be read here:


EVERYBODY LOVES A SOIREE: IN THE MERRY MONTH OF MAY


EVERYBODY LOVES A SOIREE:

IN THE MERRY MONTH OF MAY


Another month, another soiree. This one was, however, slightly different, being guests of Germany's Head of Culture, Press and Public Diplomacy in Singapore, Ying Huang at her lovely townhouse in Joo Chiat.

It's been a hot and sultry month of May, and what better way than to celebrate it with a liederabend (evening of song): a performance of Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love, Op.48, with words by Heinrich Heine), its first song being Im wunderschoenen Monat Mai (In Wonderful Beautiful Month of May). The singer was young local tenor Shaun Lee, partnered by none other than Ying herself. 



They performed all 16 songs, and Shaun was praised for his sung German by the many German speakers in attendance. Ying was a keen virtuoso accompanist as well, mastering much of Schumann's tricky but idiomatic piano writing. 

It was a lovely evening with wine, cheese, crackers, muffins, curry puffs (Polar, no less) and pizza, but most important of all was the company of like-minded people who love culture and the finer things in life. 


It was most sporting to have the
printed texts in both German and English!
Cultural diplomacy at its best.







There was even time left over for
Ying and Pianomaniac to sight read
movements from Schubert's Trout Quintet.

Monday 20 May 2024

SMETANA AND DVORAK / VCHpresents Chamber / Review

 

SMETANA AND DVORAK 
VCHpresents Chamber 
Victoria Concert Hall 
Friday (17 May 2024) 

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 May 2024 with the title "Warm evening of Bohemian rarities at SSO's chamber concert."

Was it good planning or mere coincidence that this year has been a boon for lovers of Bohemian music? Concertgoers might remember superb performances of Antonin Dvorak’s chamber works: Japan’s Aoi Trio in his Third Piano Trio (Op.65) and More Than Music & Friends in the Second Piano Quintet (Op.81). 

Sunday will see the Singapore debut of the Prague-based Pavel Haas Quartet in music by Josef Suk, Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek, but this evening’s offering by members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra should be remembered equally fondly. 


Smetana (1824-1884) is known as the “Father of Czech musical nationalism”, with tone poem Die Moldau (or Vltava) from the orchestral cycle Ma Vlast (My Country) being his best-loved work. Attended by a well-filled house, the 200th anniversary of Smetana’s birth was commemorated with the rare performance of his Piano Trio in G minor (Op.15). 

Composed after the tragic death of his daughter from scarlet fever, the music exuded sadness, opening with violinist Ye Lin’s impassioned solo. Throbbing chords from pianist Albert Tiu added to the pathos while cellist Christopher Mui’s lyrical lines provided a more calming influence. 


The threesome worked very well together, even if the work often highlighted the violin. Ye’s robust tone and flawless intonation seemed symbolic of Smetana’s representation of feminine pride and dignity, which was lent a poignancy through his daughter’s loss. 

The Scherzo was more light-hearted, with a folk dance-like quality, later transforming into something more stately without making a grand statement. The Presto finale fired on all cylinders, with pianist Tiu’s prestidigitations dictating the pace. Cellist Mui’s big melody almost stole the show, before the main theme ground into a slow funeral march. 

OK, who just farted?

Everything's alright,
it was just the VCH ghost!

The brilliant close to the trio got the plaudits its deserved from an unusually mature and sophisticated audience, on a rare evening which had neither fidgety children, errant handphones nor inappropriate clapping between movements. 


The rarities continued into the second half with the Second String Quintet in G major (Op.77) by Dvorak (1841-1904), performed by violinists Chan Yoong-Han and Sayuri Kuru, violist Gu Bing Jie, cellist Ng Pei-Sian and bassist Yang Zheng Yi. The unusual scoring with string quartet backed by double-bass translated into music of genuine congeniality, not unlike that experienced in Franz Schubert’s Trout Quintet


Thus its four movements radiated warmth and mellowness which never overstayed their welcome. The opening movement bristled with vigour, contrasted by a Scherzo which was not so much a joke, but a play on listeners’ expectations. Tempo and rhythmic shifts, skilfully handled by the players, had one wondering whether this was a dance, or something more serious. 


The slow movement oozed Slavic intensity. Violinist Chan and cellist Ng strove to maintain its melodic lines and did so gloriously. The finale’s driving rhythms, with ensemble at full throttle, ensured this Bohemian rhapsody closed with highest possible of spirits.


Monday 13 May 2024

MOTHER'S DAY CONCERT 2024 / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

 


MOTHER’S DAY CONCERT 2024 
Singapore Chinese Orchestra 
Singapore Conference Hall 
Friday (10 May 2024) 

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 13 May 2024 with the title "Singer Chyi Yu lights up SCO's Mother's Day Concert".

One fixture on the concert calendar the Singapore Chinese Orchestra has cornered is Mother’s Day, falling on every second Sunday in May. SCO’s Mother’s Day Concerts are typically events with light music, usually of a nostalgic kind. Led by principal conductor Quek Ling Kiong, this year’s offering had several differences. 

First, the concert did away with loquacious hosts preaching unending filial piety, relying instead on Quek’s straight-talking manner, not without humour in his own right. Second, the programme separated serious music from popular fare, with an intermission intervening in between. 


Opening with Lullabies arranged by Sim Boon Yew, this medley strung together cradle songs from different cultures. Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms’ famous examples sat cheek-by-jowl with several Chinese ones before closing with the American favourite Hush, Little Baby. A departure from the first piece being a rousing one, this ran the risk of prompting listeners to near slumber. 


Just as sweetly rendered was Zhao Jiping’s Homeland Nostalgia from Cantonese Rhyme Along The Silk Road, which incorporated three Cantonese melodies, including Beautiful Clouds Chasing The Moon. Important solos by Zhao Jianhua (erhu), Fontane Liang (harp) and Yu Jia (pipa) lit up the proceedings. 


The Nanyin classic The Plum Blossom Story that followed, arranged by Law Wai Lun, was in the form of a pleasant symphonic poem. Its melodic charm and colourful orchestration may not be readily associated with Mother’s Day, but the feel-good quotient and animated close made it a suitable choice. 


The second half of popular music was the main reason why both evenings had been sold out. Also arranged by Law was Stars in the Sky, a delectable medley of five hit-songs by famous Taiwanese composer and song-writer of indigenous Amis origin Li Tai-hsiang (1941-2014). These included Answer, Walking In The Rain, Sunshine Avenue, Olive Tree and Farewell


Olive Tree, with its quasi-modal melody redolent of 1970s pop/folk songs, was his stand-out work. Arranged by Ong Jiin Joo, it received a separate performance by well-known Taiwanese chanteuse Chyi Yu. Once Li’s protege and sometime sister-in-law, this contemporary of the late Teresa Teng, now in her mid-60s, has retained much of her vocal prowess and stage presence. 


In Lo Ta-yu’s The Song of the Boat, arranged by Phang Kok Jun, the music’s progressive crescendo was well sustained by Chyi despite the orchestra’s rise in volume. For Chan Yiu-Chuen’s Flower of the Woman, notably covered by the late Anita Mui, Chyi impressed with dulcet tones and excellent pitch. 


All this made the inclusion of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Memory (from Cats) seem superfluous, but Chyi’s pronunciation was more than acceptable, hitting the sweet high spots with aplomb. 


Closing the evening was the concert’s only overt tribute to mothers, Wang Mon Ling’s Mother, My Love To You, with the audience whipping out their handphones and shining along. Her encore of Li’s Stars in the Sky that followed, accompanied by harpist Liang, drew the heartiest and loudest applause.