RHAPSODIC STORIES: EXHIBITION
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.
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.