Saturday 2 December 2023

RHAPSODIC STORIES: EXHIBITION / Samuel Phua Saxophone Recital / Review


SAMUEL PHUA, Saxophone

with MERVYN LEE, Piano

Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre

Wednesday (29 November 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 December 2023 with the title "Saxophonist Samuel Phua showcases technical prowess".


When it comes to classical saxophone in Singapore, one name invariably comes to mind: Samuel Phua. The young graduate from Finland’s famed Sibelius Academy was the first and only saxophonist invited to perform at the President’s Young Performers Concert in 2014, and has been a regular fixture in works requiring sax solos in Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s concerts ever since.


His recital partnered by pianist Mervyn Lee was an impressive showcase of technical prowess and repertoire he has inspired. No less than five Singaporean composers were represented, opening with London-based composition student Elliot Teo, whose three-movement Mixed Recital received its Singapore premiere.


Opening with alto sax alone, its atonal content was characterised by declamatory and seemingly improvised passages that sometimes hinted of jazz. The second movement was for piano left hand alone despite its many notes, while the third, Pas de deux, was for combined forces with the dance element being apparent later on.


The late Leong Yoon Pin’s Sketches (1984) was originally scored for oboe and piano. Its movements, recalling scenes in New Zealand, was heard on soprano sax, which relived the oboe’s plangency, well-suited for musical dissonance and dance-like moves. In the world premiere of pianist Mervyn Lee’s Sketches in Movements, contrasts between lyricism and playfulness were well brought out on alto sax.


Two rather more approachable works closed the concert’s first half. New York-based Koh Cheng Jin’s A Fleeting Perennity was inspired by a poem about Suntec City’s Fountain of Wealth. Alto sax was rewarded with lyrical moments accompanied by gentle piano ostinatos. Volume and tempos would rise, like sprayed water jets, but the work closed quietly.


The world premiere of Germaine Goh’s Portrait saw the first appearance of the large and unwieldy baritone saxophone. Described as a “charming” character study of Phua himself, it was good-humoured and whimsical, radiating warmth and sensitivity besides having surprises up the sleeve. That it closed theatrically with an ascending glissando wail and a loud fart also spoke volumes.


Starring saxophones:
Baritone, soprano, tenor & alto
(from right to left)

The concert’s second hald was devoted to one work, Jun Nagao’s arrangement of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Originally a piano solo, this version saw Phua playing four different saxophones. Although some of the work’s original mystique was lost, this was made up by many fiendishly difficult maneuvers demanded of a soloist.


Alto sax appeared most frequently, including the opening Promenade and The Old Castle, a tribute to Maurice Ravel’s famous orchestration employing the saxophone as the troubadour’s voice. Baritone sax was used for the lumbering oxcart Bydlo and imperious Polish Jew Samuel Goldenberg, while soprano sax accounted for the shrieky Schmuyle and the Ballet of The Unhatched Chicks

The alto saxophone’s full gamut of tricks and devices was reserved for Baba Yaga’s Hut and The Great Gate of Kiev, where Promenade would gloriously return and the evening brought to a rousing close.   

Monday 27 November 2023







Victoria Concert Hall

Sunday (26 November 2023)

The Covid pandemic had wreaked havoc for Singapore's premier music competition for locally-based pianists and violinists. In 2021, the National Piano & Violin Competition (NPVC) was held completely online with no live audience in attendance. The grand finals of both Piano and Violin Artist categories were performed with piano accompaniment instead of an orchestra. Thus, it was a pleasure to be able to attend the quarter-final recitals of the Piano Artist category in person at Victoria Concert Hall. A lazy Sunday afternoon never felt more well spent.

Thanks to astute choices made by the preliminary judging panel, only eight pianists were chosen to perform their quarter-finals recital, and they were mostly excellent. The repertoire was limited to just a single baroque work lasting between 15-25 minutes. As fortune would have it, all eight pianists performed different works - with no repetition of repertoire - and this made for an enthralling afternoon.

The afternoon opened with Michelle (only one name, as Indonesians are wont to be) performing an unusual choice of Handel's Keyboard Suite in D minor (HWV.428). This multi-movement work could easily have been mistaken for Bach, if not for a fugal second movement, and with theme and variations as its finale. Hers was a very clean and articulate reading, with good pedalling and contrapuntal lines well delineated. The variations felt almost improvisatory and she finished emphatically.

Next was Zongxi He in the often-performed Bach Partita No.1 in B flat major, a work that risks been over-familiar. There were some nice ornamentations applied, and she was very fluent in the fast running dance movements. Taking risks, there were some missed notes, but it was still a satisfying reading.

Giving the personal performance of the afternoon was Long Jing Xuan in Bach's Partita No.6 in E minor, easily the longest work on show. He was determined to make each movement count by taking as many liberties as possible and extracting the maximal sonorities from the Steinway grand. Improvisatory in feel for many parts, his was the most interesting reading of all, but would he be considered mannered by the jury? One good thing: he was allowed to perform the entire without any interruption (that dreaded time-keeping bell was not employed for the entire afternoon) and that was a good thing.

Another very familiar work was Bach's French Suite No.5 in G major, which saw a reading by Lee Ann that exposed her nerves, when she had a minor stumble in the opening bar. She nevertheless recovered and offered some of the more interesting ornamentations (some might consider these overdone) heard this afternoon. The prestidigitation in the Gigue was excellent, and she had the requisite technique to keep the dynamo running unimpeded.

After a 15-minute intermission, the baroque feast continued with Wang Chien Jou in Bach's English Suite No.3 in G minor. Hers was a very confident and sonorous performance with very clean and no-nonsense approach. Parts could sound metronomic at times, but a well-schooled technique ensured a cool but emphatic close.

There was little to separate her and Fong Zi Ying, who followed with Bach's Partita No.3 in A minor, which had similar qualities of being very fluent, tasteful and ultimately satisfying. I expect both of these young lasses to advance.

Bach's English Suite No.2 in A minor has the most virtuosic Prelude of them all, and Fong Kai De made every note count by channeling an inner Argerich or Pogorelich with a sure-fingered brilliance. This performance was not mere superficial flash but possessed with a nuanced approach which not just excited but also touched. Just for the febrile nature of his reading, this might have been the standout performance of the afternoon.

Closing the afternoon was Joshua Lau in Bach's Partita No.5 in G major, in a very strong, very crisp and very musical reading. His was epitome of good taste and refinement, with not a single hair out of place. The fugal passages in the closing Gigue were very well articulated, the brilliant close suggests this young man to be the person to beat in this competition.

It was close to 6 pm when the pianists, jury and audience dispersed for dinner and well-earned rest, and four pianists would be picked to advance - Long, Lee, Fong (the lady) and Tang. The semi-finals and finals (three out of this goodly quartet) should be exciting prospects.

Piano professors meet:
Nicholas Ong, Boris Kraljevic and Albert Tiu
account for all four semifinalists
in the Piano Artist category this year!

Tickets for the Grand Final (only $10, a steal in Singapore!) on Saturday 2 December 2023 to watch three piano concertos accompanied by the NPVC Orchestra (actually the Singapore Symphony Orchestra but in name) may be purchased here: 

Singapore Symphony Orchestra (

CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA & PAGLIACCI / Singapore Lyric Opera / Review



Singapore Lyric Opera

School of the Arts Concert Hall

Friday (24 November 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 November 2023 with the title "Enjoyable evening with semi-staged Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci".


Twenty-five years ago, Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) was producing four fully-staged operas a year. Due to a shrinking budget and government subvention divided between SLO and newer opera companies, it has been reduced to just one major production annually. Singapore’s Grande Dame of Opera’s only major offering this year, directed by Nancy Yuen, was a semi-staged double-bill of two favourite Italian verismo operas. Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Clowns) are affectionately known as Cav and Pag.


SLO had spread its casting net wider afield this year, engaging two USA-based singers, Dominican tenor Jose Heredia and Italian-American soprano Lisa Algozzini in their Singapore debuts to helm the major roles of both operas. Truly inspired finds, both were young and fresh yet had enough experience to command the stage with authority.


A vital chemistry was struck for their antagonistic male-female love pairings in the tragedies that unfolded. In Cav, Heredia’s Turiddu had jilted Algozzini’s Santuzza to return to his old sweetheart Lola, but with fatal consequences. In Pag, Algozzini’s Nedda cheats on Heredia’s Canio with Silvio and both illicit lovers get offed on stage in front of a horrified audience. Stark reality and brutal realism are the essence of verismo, making for gripping drama.


Both singers lived their respective dual roles to perfection, none better in Canio’s hit aria Vesti La Giubba, illustrating a clown’s desperate dilemma caught between acting and real life, nailed with vehemence by Heredia. Local baritone Martin Ng, the only other singer with roles in both operas, was very convincing as the menacing mafioso Alfio in Cav and bumbling comedic Tonio in Pag.


Martin Ng as Tonio in Pagliacci.

The small casts including parts for Chinese soprano Li Yang (Lola) and Japanese mezzo-soprano Chieko Trevatt (Turiddu’s mother Lucia) in Cav, Korean tenor Edward Kim (Silvio) and local tenor Jonathan Charles Tay (Beppe) in Pag. SLO can never be accused of not being international in outlook.

SLO Adult Chorus in action.
Can you spot Patricia Teng and Karen Aw?


Another vital aspect was the community reach of opera, represented splendidly and colourfully by the 39 singers from the SLO Adult Chorus (Terrence Toh, Chorus Master). The Easter Hymn (Cav) and Bell Chorus (Pag), the latter joined by seven children, may also be regarded as true highlights in this production.

La commedia e finita!
The comedy is finished!


All the singers were sensitively accompanied by a 12-strong SLO Chamber Orchestra, in effective chamber arrangements by Daniel James, led by conductor Joshua Tan. The orchestra was placed onstage behind all the singers and simply set, represented by just a single stage platform and two pillars. While managed on a shoestring, the final outcome was more than satisfactory while not appearing cheap.


Most importantly, musical values – singing, ensemble work and accompaniment - were upheld to the highest levels of SLO’s capabilities. No one who attended could deny this production was a largely enjoyable one. One wonders what more may be achieved if a larger budget was made available. Singapore does not have a Met, Covent Garden or La Scala yet, but one can only dream.  

Sunday 26 November 2023

CHOPIN AND BEETHOVEN / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

Thursday (23 November 2023)

This review was published on Bachtrack on 23 November 2023 with the title "Bruce Liu makes a spirited Singapore debut."

Winners of high profile international piano competitions can be relied upon to sell concert tickets, and Canadian pianist Bruce Liu’s Singapore Symphony Orchestra debut had been sold-out months in advance. Cult of celebrity, involving young and attractive musicians of Asian extraction like Yunchan Lim, Seong Jin Cho, Yuja Wang and Kate Liu, may be a critical factor in driving interest in classical music for young people in the Far East today.    


The latest victor at the Chopin International Piano Competition (2021) being obliged to perform the Polish composer’s First Piano Concerto in E minor (Op.11) was no surprise. Liu,  who commanded the stage with his lanky stature and casual but respectful demeanour, might just remind some members of the audience of the young Van Cliburn. Predictably, he gave a well-honed performance of the overworked warhorse, oozing Romantic fervour while showcasing requisite virtuoso chops.    


The orchestral accompaniment led by Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste was as full-blooded as they come, but did little to faze a soloist determined to battle all the way. Unafraid to project with ringing resonance, Liu was also capable of lyrical poetry and exercising rubato without overdoing it. The first movement’s development was exciting but more telling was his shaping of phrases in the nocturne-like Romanze and the animated dance-moves of the Rondo finale. The latter was most crisply articulated, with vociferous applause coming way before the orchestra’s final chord had even landed.     


There were three generous encores, two by Chopin (naturally) including the Minute Waltz (Op.64 No.1) and Black Key Etude (Op.10 No.5), both whipped off with an easy nonchalance. The best came in between, with the hitherto hidden voice of the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor gloriously coming to the fore in its da capo repeat.


The concert opened with the Singapore premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.2, revealing a more friendly face of the Second Viennese School. Its harmonic language was an advance on the late Romantic chromaticism of Verklärte Nacht, but without the prickliness of the better-known First Chamber Symphony. Its two movements were varied, the first brooding over some existential crisis, while the second was fast, bounding and waltz-like. Irascible in mood and inscrutable in character, this music found a sympathetic voice, with the musicians responding on cue with no little alertness.   


While Schoenberg had a captive audience, the hall thinned considerably following the Chopin for the concert’s second half. That was a pity as Saraste’s vision of Beethoven’s First Symphony in C major had much to recommend. It has been stated that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra can now comfortably switch modes between big band and period instrument sensibilities. This performance sat unequivocally in the former camp, where vibrato and full-blown sonorities were prized.


Beethoven’s ingenuity to break away from Haydn and Mozart’s moulds was apparent from the first bars, teasing the listener with “wrong keys” before settling in C major. The orchestra did so without resort to gimmickry, and the effect was no less ironic. The so-called slow movement’s fugal entries did not sound academic in the least, while the scherzo-like Minuetto sped with a velocity and intensity that was impossible to dance to. The scalic false-starts of the finale were the barometer of Beethoven’s humour, later racing without a break to a brilliant end. Conductor Saraste was not one to milk the applause, but the orchestra knew by the reception that it had earned the audience’s admiration.     

Star Rating: ****

And here's the same review on

Bruce Liu makes a spirited Singapore debut | Bachtrack

Friday 24 November 2023

DENIS MATSUEV'S CONCERT / Denis Matsuev & Friends / Review


Capitol Theatre

Tuesday (21 November 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 November 2023 with the title "Pianist Denis Matsuev thrills packed hall with improvisatory flair and jazz detour".


Denis Matsuev is already well-known to most pianophiles. Awarded 1st prize at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1998, the Russian pianist also served as jury chairman in its most recent edition in June this year. He last performed in Singapore in 2014 as soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev.


Despite relative lack of publicity, Capitol Theatre was filled to the rafters for his 80-minute concert performed without intermission. Matsuev is well-known for his encores, so the first 45 minutes was a uninterrupted progression of "Bis", the popular German term for shorts performed after a main programme. 


Opening with Handel’s Aria and Variations, or “The Harmonious Blacksmith", he revealed an improvisatory approach to music. Pulling and stretching tempos at will, it seemed like a jazzman's take on the baroque piece, finally letting go as the variations got more rapid and increasingly florid. 

@ Pianomania


This was followed by the finale from Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, a never-ending cycle of perpetual motion, its dynamo finding resolution with Schubert’s beautifully lyrical Impromptu in G flat major. As circus acts go, there was little to match Moritz Moszkowski’s La Jongleuse (The Juggler) with ever-widening arcs of tossing and spinning, where Matsuev obliged with sleights of hand and a winking charm.


In Chopin’s elegant Waltz in C sharp minor (Op.64 No.2), the tendency was to emphasise the grand manner and lay it on thick. This particularly characterised pieces from his homeland, as Tchaikovsky’s Autumn Song (October from The Seasons) was possessed by nostalgia which became breathtakingly full-blown in Rachmaninov’s popular Vocalise. He performed the unfussy Alan Richardson transcription also favoured by piano greats Emil Gilels and Evgeny Kissin.


Denis Matsuev addressed the audience
mostly in English although he did
say some Russian words at the end

@ Pianomania

Two Rachmaninov Preludes completed the classical segment, and one will not hear more full-blooded readings of the C sharp minor (Op.3 No.2), sometimes called Bells Of Moscow, and the martially-inspired G minor (Op.23 No.5). His penchant to thunder on the much-amplified C.Bechstein grand piano makes him Lang Lang’s biggest rival in the volume department.


Joined by bassist Andrei Ivanov and drummer Alexander Singer, Matsuev let down his hair and showed chops for serious jamming. Now unconstrained by the need to be correct and polite, the Matsuev jazz trio truly rocked in rude health. Their first offering was not an arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue but rather a free improvisation on themes from Gershwin, and not necessarily in the right sequence.


It was more like 10% Gershwin and 90% Matsuev and Gang, but the result was none the worse for it. His ability to improvise and run circles and pirouettes around motifs could only have been honed in smoky dives, doing so with a free-wheeling insouciance and substance-driven intensity. Spots for ad-libbing spots by both bassist and  drummer were also cheered on by the audience.

@ Pianomania


Matsuev’s own Ballade showed moments of reflection before rising to ecstatic throes, and the trio closed the evening with extended improvisations on three movements from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt. One will never hear the rampaging In the Hall of the Mountain King the same way again.

@ Pianomania

All photos by Bechstein Music World unless underwise stated.

Sunday 19 November 2023



Music and Makan

Sentosa Nature Discovery

Saturday (18 November 2023)

After a hiatus caused by the Covid pandemic, Music and Makan, the unique platform that presents classical music alongside food founded by cellist Beverly Hiong, has made a welcome return. This time, its presentation takes place at the unusual location of Sentosa Nature Discovery, a quiet and secluded corner of the tourist-swarmed resort island of Sentosa. It is a literal hike, involving multiple stairways and ramps, to get there but the trek was well worth the effort.

M&M founder Beverly Hiong
introduces the concert and performers.

The hour-long concert was given by flautist Shirley Tong and pianist Jonathan Shin, built on a theme of birds and nature. And how appropriate the setting was, as the "hanging pavilion" of the venue was set amid lush greenery on the Sentosa hillside. An abandoned miniature golf course could be spotted but the balcony was camouflaged within a canopy of verdant vegetation that looked both exotic and welcoming.

Opening with the slow 2nd movement from Jules Mouquet's La Flute de Pan, birdsong was mimicked with much beauty. Both Shirley and Jonathan took turns to introduce the pieces, and did so with informality and humour. The children in the audience were clearly appreciative and showed it in their generally impeccable behaviour.

Two movements from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals were heard, including the restlessly fluttering Volaires (Birds) and the graceful Le Cygne (The Swan). The logical follow-up was pianist Shin's The Other Swan, which cleverly played on an inversion of the Saint-Saens theme, which now sounded something from Faure or Debussy.

Also on the cards were Balleron's The Noisy Bird, Wilhelm Popp's Nightingale Serenade and Gordon Jacob's On A Summer Evening, all evocative miniatures, and as if to further spice up the concert, the heavens opened for a torrential downpour which added to the atmosphere of the occasion. This did little to dampen the occasion, as both musicians played their hearts out. The rain had to stop sometime, and this cleared up as gratefully as in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

Closing the evening were some true classics, including J.S.Bach's witty little Two Part Invention No.8 in F major, where flute and piano accounted for the right and left hands of the keyboard. Mozart's famous Andante in C major was the longest work on the programme, dressed up in typical rococo beauty before Vivaldi's Flute Concerto in D major or Il Gardellino (The Little Gardener) provided a spirited conclusion.


Following the music was a show and tell session by Gastrogeography of Singapore which replaced the customary chow-down. This presentation was a demonstration of common roadside trees and plants "hidden in plain sight" could be possible sources of sustenance, with homemade recipes of drinks, jams and sambal pastes being sampled. The original plants including nutmeg, galangal (ginger) and herbs were passed around to be smelled and tasted. Whoever knew much of our favourite Peranakan dishes came from such humble origins?

Whoever knew what an actual
nutmeg looked like?

Kids get to try a jam 
made from rukam masam.

Again, Music and Makan have come up with another winning formula. There will be two more sessions held at this unique venue, now featuring a string trio in the programme What Lies Beneath, on 25 November and 2 December (both Saturdays), and tickets may be purchased here: 

Discovery of Music and Nature (