Thursday, 17 June 2021

OMM RESTARTS! / FRENCH IMPRESSIONS / Review




OMM RESTARTS!

FRENCH IMPRESSIONS

Esplanade Concert Hall

Recorded in January 2021

YouTube: https://youtu.be/1cPx8g16Mic 

 

Orchestral concerts are not back to what it was pre-Covid, and no thanks to the recent heightened measures taken in May-June, further concerts had to be cancelled. Online concerts have become a new normal, and no less than the Singapore Symphony Orchestra has relied on this platform to share its art. The Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) has done the same, employing the same recording specialists (msm-productions and Dancing Legs Productions) to do its bidding, and the results have been just as spectacular.

 

Viewing this latest concert video of mostly-French music (https://youtu.be/1cPx8g16Mic), and one will be challenged to decide which is the national orchestra and which is the independent youth orchestra formed by students, free-lancers, working non-musical professionals, and a handful of SSO players. Even the OMM’s programming has been one of sophistication, combining popular with less heralded works, as well as commissioning young local composers for orchestral transcriptions.



 

Conducted by Seow Yibin, the concert began with Debussy’s Reverie (originally a piano work) orchestrated by Lee Jinjun, who also played the trumpet in this concert (but not in this piece). This made for a calm and atmospheric prelude, with Vincent Goh’s solo clarinet providing the opening melody before the theme being passed around. Ethereal strings (with occasional use of harmonics) and the ever-evocative harp lent the performance an other-wordly feel it deserved.     


Lee Jinjun playing the trumpet in Ravel


 

The four orchestrated movements of Ravel’s piano suite La Tombeau de Couperin (excepting the Fugue and Toccata) followed, opening with a flowing Prélude which saw solo woodwinds negotiating multiple tricky turns with great aplomb. This was pretty much a woodwind masterclass, continuing into the bouncily syncopated Forlane, and the Menuet where solo oboist Tay Kai Tze  had the choicest of plum parts. His excellence also shone through in the slow central section of the rollicking Rigaudon, which closed the suite on a high.



 

Prokofiev’s only Flute Sonata, orchestrated by Jonathan Shin, has become Prokofiev’s Flute Concerto, now receiving its world premiere. This has the same music as the Russian’s Second Violin Sonata, which had been for reconfigured for David Oistrakh from its flute origins. One wonders why it did not become a third violin concerto as well. At any rate, Shin’s is a totally idiomatic and faithful transcription, one which gave soloist Cheryl Lim full rein to express her virtuosity.

 

Hers has never been one of outward flashiness, instead she is completely assured and totally musical. Her tone is gorgeous and limpid, well suited for the work’s broad vistas of sheer lyricism in the opening and Andante third movements. Even in the thorniest passages of the Scherzo, she remained unfazed, leaping over hurdles and through hoops with seeming comfort and ease. For the  jocular finale, the was overarching spirit was one of unremitting joy, bringing to a close a performance of utmost satisfaction. When can we get to hear the violin version of this concerto, from the likes of Alan Choo or Yang Shuxiang?     



 

Francis Poulenc’s four-movement Sinfonietta (1947) is too modestly titled. Running over 30 minutes, it is actually a fully fledged symphony, longer than all of Mozart’s symphonies and at least three Beethoven symphonies. It is scandalously neglected and I do not remember the SSO ever programming it, so kudos to OMM for possibly giving its Singapore premiere.

 

It contains all of the Frenchman’s grace, charm, sumptuous melodies and good humour, and the same uplifting spirit as his better-known ballet Les Biches (1924). Poulenc was no modernist, but one will detect influences of Stravinsky from his neo-classical phase, the infectiously chugging rhythms of the fast outer movements and svelte strings (think Apollon Musagetes) of the slow third movement.

 

While one might marvel at the typically comedic high jinks regularly offered up, it was the slower lingering passages, such as midway in the first movement and finale, which showed the ensemble at its subtle and sublime best. This was a very fine performance with much to be proud of, distinguished by very confident woodwind and brass playing and a general cohesiveness from conductor Seow’s firm yet flexible control from start to finish. It was so good I had to rewatch the whole Sinfonietta and pinch myself about the quality of the music and its playing. Perhaps OMM might also want to look at Prokofiev’s Sinfonietta as well.  



 

Highly pleasurable concerts such as this should be enjoyed by a full-house Esplanade Concert Hall, and one simply cannot wait for audiences to return. It is a big hope, but that is what will buoy us through these troubled times.

 

Watch it here:

https://youtu.be/1cPx8g16Mic

and its free of charge, 

thanks to the National Arts Council.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

COMPASSION: Online Chamber Concerts / Singapore International Festival of Arts / Review



SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL 

FESTIVAL OF ARTS 2021

COMPASSION Chamber Concerts

Online videos-on-demand on SISTIC Live

 

BE COMFORTED NOW: BACH CANTATAS

Red Dot Baroque

 

BEFORE LIFE AND AFTER

Felicia Teo Kaixin, Jonathan Charles Tay 

& Jonathan Shin

 

ECHOES OF FIRE AND WATER

Ensemble Aequilibrium

 

HEALING RHAPSODY

Ding Yi Music Company


An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 16 June 2021 with the title "Emotional healing through music".

 

The heightened measures of the present circuit breaker could not have come at a worse time for the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). Limited audiences were further restricted to 50 persons per event, and live shows of the Compassion series of chamber concerts involving singers and wind players had to be cancelled. These were, however, recorded and made available for viewing on demand, a reminder that art and artists provide solace and comfort, and will ultimately survive adversity.



 

Red Dot Baroque, Singapore’s only dedicated professional baroque ensemble, presented three sacred cantatas of J.S.Bach which explored the pain of human suffering and healing through faith in God. Sung in German, Bach’s Lutheran perspectives still ring true in modern times.

 

The world-weariness in Ich Habe Genug (I Have Enough, BWV.82) was poignantly portrayed by soprano Joyce Lee Tung while bass-baritone John Lee manly broached the subject of sacrifice in Ich Will Den Kreuzstab Gerne Tragen (I Shall Gladly Bear The Cross, BWV.56). Both singers were united for Ach Gott Wie Manches Herzeleid (Oh God How Much Heartache, BWV.58), which closed the concert with a spirit of blessed optimism.



 

Art songs of three 20th century composers, Frenchmen Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc, and Briton Benjamin Britten were the subject of Before Life And After. Tenor Jonathan Charles Tay ran the full gamut of emotions in Britten’s Winter Words, eight settings of Thomas Hardy poems, encompassing pastoral innocence and seasonal bleakness. Its culmination was the titular final song, which pondered what came before “a time there was... when none suffered sickness, love or loss”.

 

The French songs from soprano Felicia Teo Kaixin were more lyrical but no less gripping, such as Ravel’s melismatic Kaddish (a Hebrew song of mourning) and Poulenc’s deceptively congenial Poems of Louis Aragon, with words by a famed Surrealist and Communist. In between groups of songs, pianist Jonathan Shin performed movements from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, each dedicated to a friend killed in the First World War.   



 

Newly-formed new music group Ensemble Aequilibrium’s eclectic programme of 20th and 21st century works had one thing in common: uneasy calm that comes before impending doom and the aftermath that follows. Japanese icon Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Spell and Singaporean Young Artist Award Recipient Chen Zhangyi’s Walks On Water set the tone, with the fluid realm providing more than a modicum of sustenance and comfort. The atmosphere conjured was haunting and dissonances paradoxically soothing, especially with the use of flute, harp and piano. 

 

This continued into Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Cendres (Ashes), a diametrically opposed scenario of consumption by fire. Volume and tempo were upped but stopped short of outright violence, as if stilled by the warmth of embers. The main work was American avant-gardeist George Crumb’s Eleven Echoes of Autumn, which employed only four instruments: piano (with “string piano” techniques), viola, flute and clarinet. This apparent economy however translated to a myriad of tonal effects, its very short connected movements suggesting that “less is more”.



 

Healing Rhapsody was the offering of Ding Yi Music Company, conducted by Quek Ling Kiong, in response to civilisation’s perpetual cycles of crisis and rehabilitation over the ages. Joyce Koh’s stark but dynamic Isskimmer was a reflection of natural beauty as viewed in ice formations. In Benjamin Lim Yi’s Memory, liuqin, cello and sheng starred as concertante instruments, with its rich melodic content signifying nostalgia and yearning.    

 

Buddhist precepts dominated the rest of the programme, with Chow Jun Yi’s serene and lushly-scored Zen Thoughts a meditation on impermanence, the current strife being just a passing phase. Luo Mai Shuo’s specially-commissioned Compassion, which lent its title to the entire chamber series, received its world premiere. Sounds of nature were recreated in its quiet introduction, the music then blossoming into a hope that humanity aspires to kindness and ultimately love. Finally, the vigourous chant-like closing pages of Wan Yun Fei’s Bodhi, the embodiment of enlightenment, provided an upbeat end to a concert that promised healing, and delivered. 

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

27TH SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL PIANO FESTIVAL / Review



27TH SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL 

PIANO FESTIVAL

Kseniia Vokhmianina, Li Churen, 

Nicholas Loh & Chang Yun-Hua, 

Piano Recitals

Victoria Concert Hall

Thursday to Sunday (3-6 June 2021)

 

AN EXTRAORDINARY TIME

Zhang Haiou, Piano Recital

Esplanade Concert Hall

Saturday (5 June 2021)


An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 9 June 2021 with the title "Extraordinary weekend of piano". 


The Singapore International Piano Festival was cancelled last year because of the Covid pandemic. It returned this year to limited audiences of 50 members per recital, featuring a cast of young pianists who are presently based here. There was however an international flavour with artists from Ukraine and Taiwan alongside two Singaporeans. Significantly, three of the four had completed undergraduate musical studies in local institutions, and for the first time, women pianists outnumbered the men.



 

On the opening evening, Kseniia Vokhmianina’s inclusion of Three Preludes by Ukrainian composer Levko Revutsky was an exploration of nostalgia and longing. The late Romantic and Slavic flavour, reminiscent of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, looked back to a bygone era of harmonic opulence. This was prefaced by J.S.Bach’s First Partita, six dance movements crisply articulated and buoyantly dispatched. The short preludes also ushered in Rachmaninov’s Six Musical Moments, more extended essays that traversed from grief to ecstasy through lyricism and prodigious fingerwork. Vokhmianina’s grand manner of pianism follow in the illustrious tradition of great compatriots like Cherkassky, Gilels and Richter.



 

It was curious to see music of American avant-gardist George Crumb (born 1929) championed by Singaporean pianists. This tradition was started by Margaret Leng Tan, and now carried on by Li Churen and Nicholas Loh. Crumb was a pioneer of the “string piano”, where the instrument’s interior is played as an extension of the traditional keyboard.




In Crumb’s Five Pieces (1962), Li plucked, strummed and scraped the strings, creating a nether-worldly soundscape that was atonal, violent yet intermittently soothing, but always provocative. Her programme was a masterclass of sonority, opening with her own Prelude After Bach, an improvisation before launching directly into the eight rhapsodic pieces of Schumann’s Kreisleriana.

 

Similarly, Crumb’s timbral ambiguities fused almost seamlessly with Ravel’s impressionistic Miroirs (Mirrors). Fantastic visions of night moths, sad birds, a boat assailed by surging waves and pealing bells gave way to the most extroverted reading possible of Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester). Li’s sense of imagination and colour knows little bounds.    



 

The following evening, Loh’s take on Crumb’s Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music, 2001), built around a motif from jazzman Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, was  just as impressive. In addition to afore-mentioned string piano techniques, Loh struck the piano’s wood, threw in quotes from Debussy, Wagner and Richard Strauss, before shouting out in Italian a countdown to midnight.

 

The companion work was Frederic Rzewski’s North American Ballades, essentially fantasies based on popular melodies. Its fourth and final piece, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, seemed custom-made for Loh’s leather-clad burliness, with a bruising feat of piano pugilism, where palms, arms and fists rendered the keyboard black and blue.     




 

Completely separate from the Piano Festival and presented by Altenburg Arts were two recitals by Chinese pianist Zhang Haiou, the first overseas-based pianist to perform in Singapore since last year’s circuit breaker. Two pieces of transcribed Bach (by Samuil Feinberg and Dinu Lipatti) established a rich tonal palette for two late Beethoven sonatas that followed. Romantic era outpourings were served without reservation or apology. In the opening movements, mellowness and fluidity (Op.109) were contrasted with defiant vehemence (Op.111). Both works converged with variations on hymn-like subjects to  close. Zhang’s stunning mastery of the narrative was not without humour too, such as cheekily inserting the Ode To Joy motif in one of the final sonata’s variations.  




Two masterly sets of variations also distinguished Taiwan-born Chang Yun-Hua’s recital that closed the piano festival on a high. Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations were astringent but compact, carved out with a granite-like resolve, while Brahms’s Handel Variations gradually built on its expansivity, culminating with the most mighty of fugal finales. The 21-year-old’s enormous range also encompassed Beethoven’s programmatic “Les Adieux” Sonata and Spaniard Isaac Albeniz’s lilting Almeria from Iberia, both handled with sensitivity and idiomatic nous.

 



Four evenings and five recitals of piano music, uniformly of high standard and without a weak link, would scarcely be thought possible during a pandemic. One can only be grateful by quoting the title of Zhang Haiou’s recital, and count this as “an extraordinary time” indeed.   

  

For the record, the encores performed at the end of each recital were as follows:

 

Kseniia Vokhmianina (3 June, 7.30 pm):

Rachmaninov Elegie in E flat minor Op.3 No.1

Marcello-Bach Adagio in D minor

 

Li Churen (4 June, 7.30 pm):

Li Churen Butterfly

Li Churen Llama’s Land

 

Zhang Haiou (5 June, 3 pm):

Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor Op.Posth

Chopin Nocturne in E flat major, Op.9 No.2

 

Nicholas Loh (5 June, 7.30 pm)

Kapustin Etude in Seconds, Op.68 No.1

Gulda Prelude and Fugue

 

Chang Yun-Hua (6 June, 7.30 pm)

Balakirev Islamey

 

 

Thursday, 27 May 2021

COMPASSION / Singapore International Festival of Arts / Review


SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL 

FESTIVAL OF ARTS 2021

 

THE CONSOLER

Take 5

The Arts House

Wednesday (19 May 2021)

 

GHOSTS OF YESTERYEAR

Morse Percussion

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (20 May 2021)

 

ALONE TOGETHER

Li Churen, Yang Shuxiang & Leslie Tan

The Arts House

Saturday (22 May 2021)


An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 26 May 2021

 

Compassion is the series of eight chamber concerts in this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts, specially curated to reflect on the Covid pandemic and its tragic toll. Over the past year, the nation had gone into partial lockdown, lives and livelihoods were lost, but ways of coping were found and an indomitable spirit prevailed.

 

Four concerts involving voice and wind instruments had been cancelled, but the remaining recitals still had cogent stories and messages to convey. The Consoler provided an hour of 20th century piano quintet music, forged from the trials of two world wars.



 

The Russian Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet was conceived under a pall of Stalinist totalitarianism, hence its seemingly traditional forms were coloured by a tragicomic personal voice. Frenchman Charles Koechlin’s Piano Quintet composed in the wake of First World War carnage and the Spanish influenza pandemic gave the impression of sunshine breaking through a sea of dense clouds.

 

Take 5, comprising pianist Lim Yan, violinists Foo Say Ming and Lim Shue Churn, violist Janice Tsai (replacing Chan Yoong Han) and cellist Chan Wei Shing, wrung out every bit of pathos possible from both works. While Shostakovich’s faux congeniality posed an illusion of hope, it was Koechlin’s humanity which yielded true consolation.



 

The four young musicians of Morse Percussion - Derek Koh, Joachim Lim, Julia Tan and Cheong Kah Yiong – had a field day in two works by American composers. David T. Little’s Haunt of Last Nightfall memorialised the 1981 massacre of innocents during the El Salvador civil war. Pitched (marimbas and metallophones) and unpitched (drums) percussion with the aid of electronics painted a harrowing scenario which traversed from serenity to violence, climaxing with the simulation of gunshots and machine-gun fire.

 

By contrast, four movements from Philip Glass’ Aguas De Amazonia (Waters of the Amazon), adapted for percussion from piano pieces, provided soothing balm to the ears. The novel use of slung cow-bells, crotales, wine bottles, water-filled glasses and bowls conjured an ethereal and other-worldly sonority and feel, suggesting that a reconciliation with Mother Nature be the best salve for the world’s ills.   


Trio of Li Churen, Yang Shuxiang and Leslie Tan
at the Poland Constitution Day concert.

 

Alone Together saw solos, duos and a trio from the newly formed trio of pianist Li Churen, violinist Yang Shuxiang and cellist Leslie Tan. The music of Poland prominently in various degrees of carthasis works by Penderecki, Wieniawski and Panufnik. Li’s original solo compositions included improvisations on Schumann, Mozart and Chopin and were strong on nostalgia. 


The concert’s most poignant moments came in the Intermezzo from Francis Poulenc’s Sonata For Violin and Piano, composed in memory of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered during the Spanish Civil War. The trio’s encore, Piazzolla’s melancolic slow tango Oblivion, showed that music - in all its infinite variety - had the power to heal. 


Wednesday, 19 May 2021

A SONG FOR LOUIS / Louis Soliano & Friends / Review



SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL 

FESTIVAL OF ARTS 2021:

A SONG FOR LOUIS

Louis Soliano & Friends

Victoria Theatre

Friday (14 May 2021)


An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 19 May 2021 with the title "Soliano shines in starry tribute".

 

This latest edition of the Singapore Festival of Arts (SIFA) was a time for reflection and contemplation as the nation emerged from the pandemic crisis. However, this all changed with the announcement of a new lockdown arising from increased number of Covid cases detected.

 

The pair of tribute concerts organised for local jazz legend and Cultural Medallion recipient Louis Soliano were affected by new event restrictions imposed. The original audience size of 150 had to be reduced to 100 for each show, which was a pity but small blessings given that both would have been cancelled if held two days later.

 

An air of expectancy hung over the proceedings as socially-distanced patrons took to their seats. There was no mingling, but greetings were cheerily exchanged over rows and aisles. Warm applause erupted when the performers emerged behind a screen illuminating the 79-year-old maestro’s lifetime landmarks playing Wes Montgomery’s West Coast Blues. Soliano was born to migrant musicians and made his name performing drums in hotel lounge bands, and playing for American GIs during the Vietnam War. A storied career ensued before the Cultural Medallion in 2018 became his crowning achievement.

 

His collaborating performers read like a Who’s Who in Singapore’s jazz scene. Vocalist Joanna Dong was the chirpy host, styling Gershwin’s S’Wonderful before ushering in Malay pop icon Rahimah Rahim’s deeply felt rendition of P.Ramli’s Getaran Jiwa. On a video sent from Australia, Don Gomes accompanied himself on piano in Cole Porter’s Just One Of Those Things.

 

The irrepressible Richard Jackson gave a masterclass in scat-singing and ad-libbing in Chick Corea’s Spain, partnered by an equally free-wheeling flautist Rit Xu,, but where was Louis? Forty minutes into the show and midway through Paul Desmond’s Take 5, the diminutive figure of Soliano sashayed onstage to join Jackson in the improvisation.

 

The physical disparity between the two was obvious, but the wizened veteran commanded the stage with a rich and low bass-like voice that belied outward appearances. Size does matter, it seemed. Now making himself comfortable on a drum-set partnered by pianist Jeremy Monteiro and bassist Tony Makarome, the trio polished off Jules Styne’s Just In Time. Speaking about time, the 50 minutes in which Soliano appeared passed much faster that the 40 minutes that came before. Call this relativity, but this listener defers to that elusive factor called star quality.

 

With fellow drummers Bobby Singh (doubling on tabla), Jimmy Lee and Tama Goh, the quartet of percussionists had whale of a jam before the entire crew returned for Duke Ellington’s Caravan. Harry Warren’s mash-up of  The More I See Of You and There Will Never Be Another You saw the more reflective side of Louis the vocalist. He had to close on an upbeat high, and so Charles Strouse’s A Lot Of Livin’ To Do did the trick.

 

As an encore, Louis with Monteiro and guitarist Andrew Lim ended the evening with Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, and this was amply rewarded with a well-earned standing ovation.      

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

MOZART IN MAJOR / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review



MOZART IN MAJOR

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Saturday 15 May 2021


This review was first published in Bachtrack on 17 May 2021 with the title "Major Mozart with Hungarian Guests at the Singapore Symphony".


Singapore has gone into Covid pandemic lockdown again, no thanks to an increasing number of newly diagnosed cases within the community. The pair of contrasted Mozart programmes by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Gábor Káli and pianist Dénes Várjon, both Hungarians, were fortunately completed just before the suspension of orchestral concerts.

 

The first concert (7 May) covered only works in minor key, while the second programme (14 & 15 May) was devoted to major key compositions. While the rarity of minor key works (just two each of 41 symphonies and 27 piano concertos) make for more interesting Mozart, many of his major key works are hardly ever heard in concert. Such was his Cassation in G major, which received its first performance in Singapore.



 

This seven-part work could easily be called a Serenade or Divertimento, its short movements being slight, light-hearted, easy on the ears while not being particularly memorable. The entertainment of the Prince-Archbishop’s Salzburg court was probably uppermost in the 13-year-old Mozart’s mind, who trotted out as a series of march-like sequences and foursquare dances. Standing out, however, was the fifth movement, an Andante in G minor where a hint of pathos and spark of inspiration may be discerned. The finale also had surprises, with several false endings revealing tongue firmly lodged in cheek. Under Káli’s direction, strings boosted by two French horns and two oboes made the music sound better than it was.



 

Far better known is Piano Concerto No.12 in A major, which saw a sparkling reading from Dénes Várjon. Crisp articulation and limpid textures characterised his approach, allowing the music to freely breathe and “flow like oil”, to borrow a favourite description of Mozart’s. The orchestral partnership was sensitive throughout and at no point threatened to overshadow the soloist. Cadenzas were by Mozart, well-proportioned and totally in sync with all that had come before.

 

Interestingly, the central slow movement reprised a theme from the first movement, now sounding elegant and reverential, in marked contrast with the earlier liveliness. Good humour reigned in the finale’s rondo, which brought a smile whenever the second subject was raised. This curiously resembled a Chinese ditty sung by young pre-school children in Singapore. A total coincidence, no doubt. Várjon’s well-chosen encore, Bártok’s Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csik, was illuminated with the same clarity and incisive vividness.



  

A rare outing for Symphony No.34 in C major closed the evening. For every performance of the great C major symphony (No.41, or Jupiter), there should be at least one of this minor masterpiece. Its weaknesses, however, lay in just having three movements and lasting about 20 minutes, but Káli and his charges roared life into it as a matter of life and death. The martial-sounding first movement, aided by two trumpets and timpani, had the outsized pomp to mark the most momentous of occasions. Mellow strings, led by concertmaster Kong Zhao Hui, provided the symphony’s salve in its central slow movement but the high spirits returned for the finale’s Allegro vivace, now with the focus of attention on Rachel Walker and Carolyn Hollier’s pair of chattering oboes. This was the kind of performance which made one ponder, “Why don’t we hear enough of this?”  

 


Star Rating: *****

Monday, 10 May 2021

CANDLELIGHT CONCERTS: CHOPIN'S BEST WORKS / Li Churen, Piano / Review



CANDLELIGHT CONCERT:

CHOPIN’S BEST WORKS

Li Churen, Piano

Victoria Concert Hall

Friday (7 May 2021)

 

Whatever one might think of Fever’s Candlelight concerts, with its gimmicky placements of hundreds of smokeless electronic candles in concert venues, it has at least got the choice of performers right. The Vivaldi Four Seasons concerts engaged the more-than-acceptable Vocalise Quartet with a quite excellent Jocelyn Ng playing the violin solos. The bar was further raised with pianist Li Churen helming their Chopin recitals, unimaginatively called Chopin’s Best Works. Corny title aside, this Yong Siew Toh Conservatory alumnus with further degrees from Yale and Cambridge gave a best account possible for an hour of Chopin’s piano music.

 

Were these really Chopin’s best works? One might argue that moot point, but there was little denying the selections were fair representations of each genre of piano pieces which Chopin indulged in. There was one each of the nocturnes, waltzes, scherzos, impromptus, études, préludes and polonaises, but no mazurkas, ballades, rondos or sonata movements, but that is already a lot to pack in within 60 minutes.



    

To open with the Nocturne in E flat major (Op.9 No.2) was a no-brainer. Is there a more evocative work than this to convey the romance and mystique of night? Surrounded by candles, Li’s reading was one of tonal lustre and warmth, aided by judicious rubato and mastery of ornamentations. After a short address, the salon charms of Waltz in C sharp minor (Op.64 No.2, companion to the notorious “Minute” Waltz) was followed by a sequence in E major.  



Scherzo No.4 (Op.54) was an unexpected choice, the trickiest and most elusive of the four Scherzi, but Li nailed it with a combination of nimble fingers and mercurial wit. The popular “Tristesse” Étude in E major (Op.10 No.3) evinced tenderness before the little caprice of its central section gave way to a thunderous cascade in the thorniest and technically most difficult passage of all (completed avoided by the likes of Richard Clayderman). I am sorry even to bring up Clayderman, but Li totally showed that charlatan up, and everyone should know who is the real pianist.  


 

The next two works were enharmonically related: Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp minor (Op.66) and Prélude in D flat major (Op.28 No.15). Digital brilliance alternating with pure lyricism reigned in the former while the latter reminded this listener less of falling raindrops but rather the gentle and constant flickering of candlelight. Little had I expected this outcome, but the visual element provided by the evening’s setting cannot be underestimated. The formal Chopin programme closed with Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise Brillante (Op.22), the longest work on show. The nocturne-like introduction was beautifully voiced, later giving way to the vigorous dance of Polish nobility, coruscating from start to finish.



 

It was a great way to end, and Churen’s encore, an original work called Llama’s Land – beginning with a gentle waltz but gradually building up into a lively fantasy – showed her to be an excellent composer as well. Some years ago, I referred to her in a review as the “epitome of poise and polish”. Now let me now add “passion” to that list of superlatives.



 

Li Churen will perform at the Singapore International Piano Festival on Friday 4 June at Victoria Concert Hall, playing the music of Schumann, Ravel, George Crumb and an original composition inspired by J.S.Bach. Be sure not to miss it.    

http://www.sso.org.sg/sipf 


The National Gallery (Old Supreme Court)
looks great by "candlelight" too.


Thursday, 6 May 2021

POLAND MAY 3RD CONSTITUTION DAY CONCERT / Review




POLAND MAY 3RD 

CONSTITUTION DAY CONCERT

Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre

Tuesday 4 May 2021

 

Imagine the feeling of surprise and pleasure to be invited by the Embassy of Poland in Singapore to attend an evening of Polish chamber music performed by Singaporean musicians. I had honestly never quite realised the close relationship between our city-state and the Eastern European powerhouse. For example, I did not know that Poland had donated ten thousand chicken eggs to the residents of Sembawang during last year’s Covid lockdown, nor was I aware of Singapore’s investments in the Baltic sea port of Gdansk. Thanks to HE Ambassador Magdalena Bogdziewicz and Alvin Tan, Singapore's minister-of-state for Culture, Youth, Information, Trade and Industry, in their respective speeches, I am that little bit wiser.       


 
Before the actual concert, Li Churen performed
on piano the national anthems of Singapore and Poland.

The concert was performed by a newly formed local trio of violinist Yang Shuxiang, cellist Leslie Tan and pianist Li Churen, all of whom have affiliation with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. Yang and Li are fairly recent graduates while the veteran Tan, founding member of the T’ang Quartet, is part of the faculty. Despite their age gaps spanning almost three decades, the threesome displayed rather good chemistry together, but more later.



 

The evening began with Chopin’s solo music, with Li performing the Waltz in C sharp minor (Op.64 No.2), displaying insouciance and rubato to equal measure, before letting rip in the Fantaisie-Impromptu (Op.66), dizzying fingers alternating with pure poetry in its lyrical centre. The solo segment was completed with the Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise Brilliante (Op.22). The showstopper was given its due, with a nocturne-like introduction leading up to a fiery show of digital virtuosity. Churen has been engaged to perform in Fever’s Chopin By Candlelight recitals and this year’s Singapore International Piano Festival. The organisers really know their pianists.



 

Wieniawski’s Legende was given a passionate reading by violinist Yang and Li, opening with calm but smouldering disquiet before erupting into a full-throated rhapsody. Shuxiang is well-known for the wide breadth of his string tone, but his largesse did not come to fruition in the hall’s dryish and somewhat unflattering acoustics.



 

Leslie Tan’s instrument was cast in better light for two varied movements from Krzysztof Penderecki’s Suite for  Solo Cello. This is a largely tonal work, quite different from the recently departed composer’s  notorious Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, but still retaining a spiky dissonance and acerbic quality. The Aria was more of a lament while the Scherzo taxed his limits of agility to the full. It was not easy listening but rewarding nonetheless for the emotional depth on display.



 

All three performers were united for the early Piano Trio (Op.1) by Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) in three short movements. This was a student work, dating from 1934, when his personal musical voice had not fully formed. Eminently tonal and late Romantic in idiom, the first movement were redolent of Debussy or Ravel but not so impressionist. There was melodic interest in the central movement, albeit all-too-brief before heralding lively finale’s ostinato beat. Elements of Polish folk music come into play, and one is reminded of Szymanowski’s compositions influenced by his sojourns in the Tatra Mountains. This must certainly be the Singapore premiere of this very engaging work, and the trio members worked well together to make it spark.



 

You can hear it again when the Yang-Tan-Li trio perform a similar programme at the Singapore International Festival of Arts on 22 May at The Arts House.