Friday, 1 July 2022

SOUND VISIONARIES / Christina Petrowska Quilico, Piano on Navona Records / Review





SOUND VISIONARIES

DEBUSSY / MESSIAEN / BOULEZ

Christina Petrowska Quilico, Piano

Navona Records NV 6358

 

Twentieth century piano music is an acquired taste. The dissonances of Bartok, Prokofiev and Shostakovich may be the limit of tolerance for those who luxuriate in the harmonic lushness of Rachmaninov or Ravel. The Second Viennese School likes of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern did conceive piano works of the atonal variety, but it was the French who led the way in crafting the unique soundscapes that defined the new epoch.

 

This excellent album traces the breaching of traditional tonality by way of Claude Debussy (1862-1918), further inroads made by his musical successor Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), to the outright atonality of Pierre Boulez (1925-2016). The chronological sequence of works performed progresses from 1912-13 with Debussy’s Second Book of Préludes to Boulez’s Third Sonata of 1955-57, as melody is deconstructed, tonalities dissipate and dissonances mount. All this makes for an enthralling aural journey.

 

Eight of twelve Debussy Préludes were selected, exploring piquant harmonies, complex rhythms and adventurous textures. It is interesting to note which Préludes have been omitted; namely the tunefully nostalgic Bruyeres, two involving jazzy rhythms (General Lavine and Pickwick) and Canope. The spareness and use of modal tunes in Canope actually looks ahead to Messiaen’s sound world, and would have made for the perfect transition. However, it is the bristling and near-atonal Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) that precedes seven of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus).  


Debussy, Messiaen & Boulez

 

Messiaen’s twenty Regards (1944) were conceived with sacred and spiritual inspirations in mind, and like Romanesque cathedrals, are austere, astringent and awe-inducing at the same time. His two most popular Regards (Kiss of the Infant Jesus and Spirit of Joy) are not included, but shorter ones that make the most impact. These are not played in published sequence but still make logical sense on listening. Regard XVI (Gaze of the Prophets, Shepherds and Wise Men) begins with heavy chords but works through several ostinato figures before arriving at a sequence that strongly resembles the familiar Twilight Zone theme on television. That its composer Marius Constant was a student of Messiaen’s is too much of a coincidence.

 

The Messiaen group closes with an unusually aggressive portrait of Christmas, Noël, which ushers in Boulez’s First Sonata (1946), at ten minutes the shortest of his three piano sonatas. By this time, the ears have undergone the gradual process of acclimatisation, such that Boulez’s freely atonal and seemingly random procession of notes becomes less of an arduous listening challenge. Whether one chooses to continue listening and include Trope, the second movement of the Third Sonata, is a matter of taste and test of one’s curiosity.

 



Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico is a compelling artist, one who makes light of the myriad technical challenges and gets to the heart of the music. This primer of twentieth century French piano music gets better with each repeated listen.

 

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

CHINOISERIE / Duo Chinoiserie on Navona Records / Review




CHINOISERIE

Duo Chinoiserie

Navona Records NV6417

 

Globalisation is what made this album, a meeting of the East and West, possible. Both the guitar and the ancient Chinese guzheng are string instruments which are plucked and strummed. While the guitar has six strings, the guzheng‘s 21 to 26 strings is blessed with a wider range of sonorities. Capable of extravagant glissandi or slides, the guzheng player in a Chinese orchestra usually doubles as its harp player. Founded in 2016, both members of Duo Chinoiserie, guitarist Bin Hu and guzheng player Jing Xia, hail from mainland China.  



 

Dong Feng, the title of their debut album, translates from Chinese as “East Wind” or “Airs from the East”. Its contents, comprising both original and transcribed works, are far more eclectic, including compositions by Brazilian, Spanish, Welsh, French, Japanese and French composers. Ironically, no Chinese music or works by Chinese composers have been included. The sole Asian composer is Yusuke Nakanishi, whose Inari is a suite of three short movements inspired by the Japanese harvest festival in honour of the Shinto deity of agriculture. In the zen-like stillness of Invocation, the gentle sounds of both instruments come into focus, contrasted with the more lively rhythms of Fox’s Dance and Festival.

 

The other original works for this combo have Chinese inspirations. Well-known Brazilian guitarist Sergio Assad’s Mulan is founded upon the adventures of the Chinese peasant girl who cross-dresses to become a warrior (as famously depicted in the Disney animated movie). No Chinese tunes are quoted, nor is pentatonic music a focus, instead interesting timbral textures are explored through tonal means. In the same spirit is Frenchman Mathias Duplessy’s Zhong Kui’s Regrets and Zhong Kui’s Journey. Zhong Kui is the demon-slaying deity commonly seen in Chinese temples sporting a bushy black beard and gruff expression. The two contrasting movements are contemplative and exuberant, reflecting the general benevolence of his character.



 

The arrangements by Duo Chinoiserie are very idiomatic, bringing out the beauty and essence of well-known pieces such as Granados’ Danza Espanolas No.3 (also called Oriental), and three dances from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo (Love, The Magician) including the Dance of Terror and Ritual Fire Dance. Also very enjoyable are transcriptions of Debussy’s The Girl With The Flaxen Hair and Golliwogg’s Cakewalk (from Children’s Corner). Most atmospheric are the duo’s take on five movements from Stephen Goss’ Cantigas de Santiago, originally for solo guitar. Based on sacred and secular medieval songs from Spain, these are a heady confluence of the old and new.

 

This is a most engaging anthology of exotic and not-so-exotic music, showcasing artistry at the highest level. Ardently recommended listening.

 

You can sample / download / purchase this recording at:

Chinoiserie – Navona Records 

Saturday, 25 June 2022

EVERYBODY LOVES A SOIREE! PART 2!


EVERYBODY LOVES A SOIREE! 

PART 2

 

Now that the Covid pandemic is in its endemic phase, socialised folk used to partying are back to gathering and enjoying each others’ company. Musical performance had been a victim of social distancing laws, but that’s history now since concert activity has resumed normality and business as usual. The same could be said of soirees, when not too long ago, people could be prosecuted for just meeting for a makan.

 

The latest soiree was hosted by a welcoming and generous family in the central district to celebrate the young piano talent that is 18-year-old Pung Rae-Yue, now pursuing undergraduate musical studies at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. In August, she will be taking part at the Ettlingen International Piano Competition, and this evening, she had a ready audience to cheer her on.

 

In the programme that included the music of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Medtner and Kapustin, she wowed her listeners with her musicianship and virtuosity. But she wasn’t the only piano player in this crowd...

 

Below are some candid (and not so candid) photos from the memorable soiree, where everyone present was treated to great food, great music, and great company!


The Changs, Wangs, Lims & Tans
meet to makan.

The makan before the music
(apologies to Beverly Hiong)

The younger but not lesser table:
Estelle Goh, Karen Wong (her mentor),
Rae Pung, Christine Gan (her mom) & Julia Wang.


The music begins when Rae performs
Haydn's Sonata No.52 in E flat major,
followed by Ravel's Ondine (Gaspard de la nuit).

Look who's listening?
Singapore International Piano Festival director
Lim Yan and his wife Jia Huei enjoying the music.
This time its Beethoven's Sonata Op.31 No.1.

Now's the turn of Estelle Goh, recent 1st prizewinner
at the Steinway Youth Piano Competition,
performing Henselt & Granados.

Applause all round for the piano starlets.

Not so piano starlets:
Lim Yan & PianoManiac try out
Grieg's Morning Mood (Peer Gynt)

It's now Anitra's Dance (Peer Gynt)
with Rae & PianoManiac.

Piano 6 hands as Rae, Estelle & Lim Yan
play Rachmaninov's Romance, and
Yan gets the big tune!

And there's also a Waltz for 6 hands too!

Its back to Rae with her Ettlingen programme:
Chopin's Ballade No.4 & Etude Op.10 No.4

Its Bach's Prelude & Fugue in F sharp major
(WTC Book 1) from Rae.

She closes her programme with
Kapustin's riproaring Etude Op.40 No.1.

Rae and Estelle get an autographed CD
recording of Leon McCawley performing
Haydn and Schubert (on Somm Records).


One final group photo
till we meet again!


Friday, 24 June 2022

EPHEMORY / CHUREN LI, Piano / Review




EPHEMORY

Churen Li, Piano

Cross Ration Entertainment

CRE-A086 / TT: 18’11”

 

Record collectors of a certain age demographic might remember the 7-inch 45-rpm vinyl record, with one or two short tracks per side, playing for durations of less than twenty minutes. Music labels would record singers, pianists and violinists in arias and short encore pieces, to be released at low cost to music lovers particularly young people. Singaporean pianist Churen Li’s debut CD resembles one of these “singles” or EP (extended play) records, as it comprises just five short tracks, but what pleasure these provide.

 

A graduate of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Li also received further degrees from Yale and Cambridge Universities. She is a serious concert pianist, with repertoire ranging from the Baroque,  Beethoven, Rachmaninov to George Crumb, also involving extended keyboard techniques. As a composer, her style is however a comfortable cross between classical and pop, encompassing improvisation, minimalism and New Age styles often encountered in film music.    

 

Prelude after Bach is based on the first movement from J.S.Bach’s Cello Suite No.2, serving as a prelude to Li’s Llamas Land, an original waltz fantasy inspired by the serene green space in Cambridge called Lammas Land. Fond recollections and past passions inform the album’s title Ephemory, a portmanteau of ephemeral and memory. In Butterfly, one of her earliest compositions from ten years ago, Li inverts the opening theme of Ravel’s Sonatine as its opening gambit.

 

Andante cantabile is a meditation on the slow movement from Schumann’s Piano Quartet (Op.47), which works the Disney movie tune Alice in Wonderland as envisioned by Bill Evans into the mix. For Fantasy after Mozart, the Siciliano slow movement from Mozart Piano Concerto No.23 begins in G minor and undergoes several transpositions. Chopin’s E minor Prelude (Op.28 No.4) is incorporated before homing on the “rightful” key of F sharp minor. The serendipitous juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated melodies make these works all the more interesting.

 

All the performances are vividly recorded, and the slick packaging resembles a pop or crossover album. Churen Li has undoubtedly more inventive ideas up her sleeves, and one looks forward to her next CD, hopefully to be a long-playing one.


Watch a performance of Llamas Land by Churen Li at the Singapore International Piano Festival 2021:

Llamas' Land by Churen Li | Singapore International Piano Festival - YouTube


This recording is on sale at Churen's concert with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on 16 July 2022 at Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets are available at:

Han-Na Chang and Churen Li – Beethoven and Grieg | Singapore Symphony Orchestra (sso.org.sg)


Thursday, 23 June 2022

SEVEN / PHOON YU, Organ / Review




SEVEN

PHOON YU, Organ

Klais Organ of Esplanade Concert Hall

Centaur Records 3926 / TT: 49’05”

 

Strange as it may seem, this is the first ever CD recording of organ music by Singaporean composers. That it comes from Singapore’s brightest young organist, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and Juilliard-trained Phoon Yu, who commissioned all the works in the recital, is also significant. Its title Seven comes from the programme’s two groups of seven: seven Singaporean composers with their on personal takes on J.S.Bach’s Chorale Preludes from Clavier-Ubung Book 3, and the seven angels from the Book of Revelation as envisioned in a cycle by an eighth Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi.

 

Phoon is Anglican by faith, which partly informs this album’s overtly religious programme. It was, however, the aim of showcasing the organ’s full range of colours and dynamic capabilities that really distinguished each of the fourteen pieces. It is perhaps best to appreciate the music as two separate recitals of seven works, playing for about 25 minutes each.   



 

The seven composers’ responses to the Bach chorales either took the form of (1) paraphrases, (2) pieces based on choral melodies (cantus firmus) or (3) pieces inspired by the words (text evocations).  Opening the recital is Jonathan Shin’s Postlude to Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr (Glory be to God in the highest), a jazzy paraphrase that imagined if JSB had arrived in Brooklyn and heard bluegrass.

 

The choral melodies in Tan Yuting’s Vater unser in Himmelreich (Our Father in Heaven) and Emily Koh’s Fantasia on Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (I cry out to you in deep distress) are well hidden, embedded within the organ’s textures. The latter’s crunching and long-held chords come closest to espousing the avant-garde. In Lee Jinjun’s Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (Christ our Lord came to Jordan), the melodic line is more transparent and thus most readily discernible.

 

The text evocation preludes gave composers the widest freedoms of expression, hence how different each work sounds. Huang Dingchao’s Fantasia on Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot (These are the ten holy commandments) revels in liberal dissonances. Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin’s We all believe in one God reflects the radiance of ecumenism, of one uniting the three Abrahamic faiths. Wynne Fung’s Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der von uns Gotteszorn wandte (Jesus Christ, our saviour, who turned away the wrath of God from us) closes the cycle with some questions instead of a comforting benediction.



 

Olivier Messiaen has previously been cited as an influence for some of Chen Zhangyi’s music. The subject of The Seven Angels certainly has Messiaenic overtones but Chen instead finds his own voice in the seven brief and concise (and therefore un-Messianesque) utterances. Birdsong and celestial chorales are absent, instead various manifestations of trumpets take over, heralding the apocalyptic events in Revelation. It is best appreciated while perusing the texts from Chapters 8, 9 and 11 of the New Testament book of Revelation (not reproduced in the sleeve-notes) while listening to the music. A mixed sense of fearful trepidation and reverential awe may be the desired outcome.



 

There is much to marvel in this music, all hailing from a rather troubled first two decades of the early twenty-first century. Guided by the keen vision, tremendous intellect and understated virtuosity of Phoon Yu, Esplanade Concert Hall’s scandalously under-utilised Klais Organ has hardly sounded this magnificent. This album is a prime candidate for the Singapore canon, established by composing legends like Leong Yoon Pin and Phoon Yew Tien.    


This recording may be sampled / downloaded at:

Seven de Phoon Yu, Syafiqah ‘adha Sallehin, Tan Yuting, Wynne Fung, Chen Zhangyi, Emily Koh, Huang Dingchao, Jonathan Shin & Lee Jinjun en Amazon Music Unlimited


A selection of works from this album may be heard in this Youtube video from the Episcopal Church of St Ignatius of Antioch in New York City (recorded on 22 April 2022):

'SEVEN: Organ Music of Singapore' Album Showcase (Archived Livestream) - YouTube


Wednesday, 22 June 2022

FANTASIES & ETUDES / TURKISH DELIGHTS & SIMPLE GIFTS / Anton Gerzenberg, Piano; Keila Wakao, Violin with re:Sound / Review




FANTASIES & ETUDES

Anton Gerzenberg Recital

presented by Altenburg Arts

Victoria Concert Hall

Wednesday (15 June 2022)

 

TURKISH DELIGHTS & SIMPLE GIFTS

Keila Wakao & re:Sound

Victoria Concert Hall

Sunday (19 June 2022)


This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 June 2022 with the title "Young musicians steal the limelight".

 

It is no exaggeration to say that young people now command the concert stage like never before. Just last week, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra named 15-year-old violinist Chloe Chua as its artist-in-residence for the 2022-23 season. This pair of concerts is further proof that youth is no impediment to the pursuit of artistry.


Photo: Ung Ruey Loon

 

German pianist Anton Gerzenberg, now in his mid-20s, was the 2021 winner of the Geza Anda International Piano Competition in Zurich. As a teenager, he was already performing chamber music with the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich. His Singapore debut was a showcase of multi-faceted artistry.

 

Photo: Ung Ruey Loon


The programme was palindromic, opening and closing with cycles of etudes (keyboard studies), with two fantasies sandwiched in between. Contemporary Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Six Etudes showcased an outlandish display of digital effects, from rhythmic machinations to absolute scintillation. Atonality was never an issue, instead Gerzernberg’s intelligent and engaging approach brought out the music’s vital essences – pulse, texture and a kaleidoscopic array of colours.


Photo: Ung Ruey Loon

 

In Schubert’s ferocious Wanderer Fantasy, barnstorming was replaced by thoughtfulness, eschewing showy technique for its own sake. One was instead reminded of the composer’s love for lieder (artsong). Similarly, a radiant voice emerged from the subterranean rumblings of Scriabin’s Fantasy in B minor (Op.28), like a sun’s rays piercing through dark clouds. The heavy lifting called for in Chopin’s 12 Etudes (Op.25) seemed like child’s play for Gerzenberg. All through its thorny thickets, only music was heard, not just mere notes. His generous encores of Schumann (Arabeske Op.18), Kreisler-Rachmaninov (Liebesleid) and Debussy (L’isle Joyeuse) also confirmed that notion.



 

Sixteen-year-old Japanese-American violinist Keila Wakao was the latest winner of the Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition (Junior Division), the same platform that launched Singapore’s Chloe Chua into prominence. Her Singapore debut with chamber group re:Sound, performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5 in A major, was no less impressive.



 

Blessed with a gorgeous full-voiced tone and spotless intonation, her solo entry was breathtaking. As with most conductor-less performances, she joined in the general ensemble playing in tutti passages. Leading from centrestage, her solos were also in perfect synchrony with concertmaster Yang Shuxiang and his charges, displaying all the best qualities of chamber music-making.



 

Her cadenzas eschewed outright virtuosity, tasteful and in keeping with the spirit of the music. The famous Turkish-styled minor key episode of the finale, brought out some drama but this was never vulgar or self-indulgent. Like her encore of Gabriel Faure’s Apres un reve (After A Dream), accompanied by just orchestral strings, every moment was well-judged and beautifully crafted.

 



True to the concert’s folksy theme, the evening opened with Mozart’s comic Overture to Abduction From The Seraglio, rocking with raucous percussive effects from triangle, cymbals, timpani and bass drum. It closed with the chamber version of Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring for 13 players, revelling in jaunty dance moves before gloriously closing with variations of the well-known Shaker hymn Simple Gifts. Simply delightful.     




Tuesday, 21 June 2022

6TH STEINWAY YOUTH PIANO COMPETITION FINALS / Review




6TH STEINWAY 

YOUTH PIANO COMPETITION

Professional & Amateur Division Finals

Steinway Production Gallery

Saturday & Sunday (18 & 19 June 2022)

 

The Steinway Youth Piano Competition is now in its sixth edition, and has become as much a landmark as the biannual National Piano & Violin Competition. In certain ways, it is more prestigious as the grand winner gets to represent Singapore in the regional finals (covering all of Southeast Asia, Taiwan and South Korea), and hopefully win a spot to perform at the Steinway Festival in Hamburg, Germany. Due to Covid restrictions still in place, this year’s edition was held live (for a limited audience) and via online streaming.


Jury for the Professional division finals,
the A team of local piano pedagogy & performance:
Benjamin Loh, Albert Tiu, Kseniia Vokhmianina,
Lena Ching and Lim Yan, with Celine Goh.

 

For the finals of both its Professional and Amateur divisions, the fire engine red Steinway D (famously played by Lang Lang at the SG50 celebratory concert) was trotted out for 33 pianists over two afternoons last weekend. Cash prizes, trophies, certificates and professional video recordings were a big draw, but the Grand Prize winner will perform at the regional finals in some exotic foreign location yet to be determined. To underscore the rigour of the judging process, the performances were scrutinised by no less than 20 jury members drawn from the piano performance, pedagogical and review (ahem) circles of the local community.


Calmly awaiting their turn
are the Cat 1 finalists and parents.

 

Professional Division 

(Saturday, 18 June 2022)


Luther Ong

 

The Professional division finals showcased 10 pianists in three age categories. Category 1 (11 years and below) got off to a roaring start with the National Piano & Violin Competition’s latest winner (Junior Category) Luther Ong in fine form. His detailed reading of Beethoven’s elusive Sonata in F sharp (Op.78) was most admirable, then luxuriated in the smouldering lyricism of Cecile Chaminade’s Automne (most recently heard from one Shaun Choo) before closing with Ravel’s rhythmically charged Alborada del Gracioso. Nobody at this age has the right to play with such confidence and verve.


Charissa Ooi's graceful playing
matched her outfit!

 

Charissa Ooi was at her most convincing in Glinka’s Variations on the Nightingale, filled with colour and nuance. Crispness and precision defined her view of Haydn’s Sonata in F major while Berkovich’s Variations on Paganini’s ubiquitous Caprice No.24 did little to faze her. Some day she will do the Brahms and Liszt versions. Newman Tong's Haydn (the same sonata) was no less vivid, and he displayed good right hand filigree in Schubert's well known Impromptu (Op.90 No.4). As for the first movement of Kabalevsky’s Third Sonata, all the children who play it begin to sound like young versions of Horowitz, and that is a good thing.  


Newman Tong

Tristen Ng

 

It was just as good with the three youths in Category 2 (12 to 14 years). Tristen Ng opened impressively with Kabalevsky’s Rondo in A minor, composed for the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition won by Van Cliburn. The percussiveness continued for Beethoven’s Sonata in A (Op.2 No.2) but cantabile was thankfully restored in Chopin’s D flat major Nocturne (Op.27 No.2).


Casey Li

 

Casey Li gave a good shot at Liszt’s Ricordanza (No.9 of the twelve Transcendental Etudes), which has yet to sound fully-formed, but the singing tone achieved was an improvement over her earlier Mozart (K.281). Best, however, was a luminous reading of Debussy’s prelude Les collines d’Anacapri, which had examplary pedalling. Kate Isabelle Ong's peak performance was in Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu, a scintillating reading. Her Beethoven Sonata (Op.10 No.1) was hard driven while the Kabalevsky Rondo (second performance within an hour!) was slower and less brilliant than Tristen’s.


Kate Isabelle Ng

Xu Ruojin

 

According to reliable sources, the competition in Category 3 (15 to 17 years) was so stiff that four finalists had to be selected instead of three. Xu Ruojin could not completely avoid percussiveness in Beethoven’s Sonata (Op.10 No.3), but his Chopin Scherzo No.2 was suitably brilliant, possibly the best performance of the afternoon. This was topped with Debussy’s final prelude Feux d’artifice, which became a veritable etude in his capable hands. Yu Jingwen captured the turbulent spirit of Beethoven’s Les Adieux Sonata (Op.81a) well, later contrasting this with a dreamy and seamless Chopin Nocturne in D flat (Op.27 No.2 again) and a wild rumble on the pampas with Ginastera’s Argentinian Dance No.3.


Yu Jingwen

Jaden Tan

 

Jaden Tan is capable of musical responses, but must Beethoven’s later Sonata in E minor (Op.90) be pummelled so mercilessly? The choice of two of Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles was interesting, although the lack of irony displayed less so, as was his thunderous reading of Liszt’s Tarantella (from Venezia e Napoli). Fast fingers are enviable, but other faculties need catch up. Justin Low provided the programme with the greatest range, a thoughtful Beethoven Sonata (Op.109) despite some missed notes, a very evocative and even mysterious Ravel Jeux d’eau before the barrel of laughs that is Grainger’s cakewalk smasher In Dahomey. He clearly enjoys the music!


Justin Low

 

Prodigiousness was in rich supply, and technical achievement seemed to trump more musical values. In this respect, sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven were particularly afflicted. It seemed difficult to make their music less like coming from a sewing machine or jack-hammer. Was it the piano, the ambient acoustics, the pianists themselves, their teaching, or a combination of all these factors? Perhaps one might get a different result if Bach or Scarlatti (surprisingly under-represented at this competition) were mandatory choices for inclusion.

 

Amateur Division (Sunday, 19 June 2022)

 

The Youth-At-Heart finalists:
Chika Sonada, Candy Tan & Cynthia Goh.


The Youth-At-Heart category opened with Amateur Division finals with three ladies mature enough to be mothers of everybody else who took part. And they were totally impressive, given their dedication to the art of piano playing amid the chores of mothercraft not to mention full-time careers. Candy Tan got just about all the notes in Liszt’s fearsome Mazeppa (the fourth of twelve Transcendental Etudes), which was no mean feat. Perhaps that was over-pedalled, smudging much of the lines, but that was more appropriate in Rachmaninov’s nocturne-like Prelude in D (Op.23 No.4), which sang out quite beautifully.


 

Cynthia Goh

Chika Sonoda gave a measured but ultimately passionate reading of Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor (Op.48 No.1), followed by Debussy L’Isle Joyeuse, opening cautiously but luxuriated in its big melody and super-charged high octane closing. Cynthia Goh provided a gloss to Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat (Op.27 No.2), with the melodic line seamlessly crafted and ornamentations delicately delivered. Similarly the lyrical centre was the highlight of Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor (Op.23 No.5). There was little to separate all three artists, who have much to be proud of.   

 

Elfie Tong


Category 1 (under 6 years, also known as the Ultra-Cute category) saw five youngsters who had personal pedal extensions (and an Ikea step-up device in one case) provided. The stand-outs were Elfie Tong, Lucia Lek and Shalom Ng who not just played the notes but gave extra nuances and dimensions to the short pieces they offered. If there were a prize for best costume, Shalom’s fiery red gown with train which matched the piano shade for shade wins hands down.


Shalom Ng's gown was perfectly
matched for this grand piano!

 
Earnest Ng

Category 2 (7 to 10 years) saw a marked rise in standard, with a wider selection of pieces on displayed. It was interesting to note how Soviet pedagogical pieces by the likes of Kabalevsky and Maykapar begin to figure more prominently from this age group onwards. These are easy enough for young learners to accomplish yet sound difficult and impressive on first encounter. Quite outstanding were Jacques Ibert’s Le Petit Ane Blanc (Little White Donkey) from the spiffily attired Earnest Ng (with three-piece suit), Averil Chua's Grieg and Kabalevsky, and whatever Foo Ming En put her fingers, hands and mind to, namely Scarlatti, MacDowell and the earliest version of Liszt’s etude Mazeppa.


Foo Ming En

Koh Jae Ann


 

In Category 3 (11 to 14 years), one pianist was put at a serious disadvantage by having to perform live on an upright from home via Zoom (a consequence of Covid?), with all the intendant audio distortions. Those who made it to the studio were much better off. Tong Yong Kang put a brave show with Mozart and two movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Friar Laurence and Mercutio, which were very musical. Isabelle Kuan also impressed with Glinka’s Variations on The Nightingale and Bartok’s Rondo on Hungarian Folk Tunes, offering a plethora of nuances in these varied works. Koh Jae Ann's choice of three very different Shostakovich Preludes (from Op.34) was excellent, and her Mozart movement (K.570) was achieved without banging, a first! Louis Xie brought out some humour from Haydn’s Sonata in D major despite its sewing machine tendencies and mastered Khachaturian’s Toccata with the same kind of dogged determination.

 

Louis Xie


By the time one reached Category 4 (15 to 17 years), it may be said that the difference between the Amateur and Professional divisions was mighty slender. At this age, what is to decide who is going to be a professional musician in the future or merely a music lover who plays for the sheer heck of it? I believe this dichotomy to be a false and illusory one.  



 

Estelle Goh’s nuanced readings of Adolf von Henselt’s etude Si oiseau j’etais (If I Were A Bird, famously recorded by Rachmaninov himself) and Granados’ Allegro de Concierto were so accomplished and well projected, equal or better than the best of the Professional Division. Likewise, Xian Ruofei made fairly easy work of the vertiginous fingering in the finale of Mozart’s Sonata in F (K.332), Chopin’s Etude in C (Op.10 No.1), missing a few notes along the way, and Debussy L’Isle Joyeuse, which was rapturous to say the least.


Estelle Goh

Olivier Lim

 

Wee Kai Xuan meant every note of her smouldering Chopin Nocturne in D flat (Op.27 No.2), then revelled in the free-wheeling liberties of Earl Wild’s transcription of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm (including forearm clusters to close), thus erasing the memory of a somewhat aggressive Mozart A minor Sonata (K.311). Olivier Lim's view of Beethoven's Sonata in D (Op.10 No.3) was appropriately clangorous, and it got even better in Prokofiev’s Third Sonata, which had just the right mix of percussiveness and lyricism. To close the finals on a high was Michelle Harianto, whose Chopin Rondo in C minor (Op.1), a rarity, was confidently and idiomatically handled, before a luminous Ravel Jeux d’eau swept the board. Who is to say that none of these fine artists should not represent Singapore at the regional finals just because they played in the Amateur division?


Michelle Harianto

 

I will not display my own predictions of the final results, suffice to say it might be quite different from the judging panel’s. For the record, Luther Ong (Category 1, Professional Division) was awarded the coveted Grand Prize. The full results may be caught here: (20+) Steinway Gallery Singapore | Facebook 


The jury for the Amateur division finals:
Low Shao Ying, Wu Yang, Ou Yang Lei Lei,
Lee Pei Ming & Tang Wern Ning, with Celine Goh.

The man behind the running of 
the Steinway Youth Piano Competition is
Phan Ming Yen, himself a fine piano player.

 

The listening experience over two afternoons had been a very satisfying one, boding well for piano playing and classical music in the republic for years to come. It does not matter if any of these young people turn professional or not, it is however more important that they remain music lovers for life (like those Youth-At-Heart ladies), spread the gospel of good music, and encourage their friends and family to follow suit. In short, piano playing and classical music must become more contagious than Covid!