Friday 21 October 2016


SIFOM Ensemble
Singapore International Festival of Music
Chamber, The Arts House
Wednesday (19 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 October 2016 with the title "Three strikes and New Music is out".

New music has the perpetual problem of attracting audiences, and presenters are usually mindful of engaging patrons with various outreach efforts to win them over. This concert of new Singaporean music however did nothing of the sort as its presentation was lamentable and unacceptably poor.

There were neither composer biographies nor programme notes provided, just a host who happened to be Paris-based conductor Marlon Chen merely reading out titles of performed pieces. Even the names of performers were omitted. Strike One. Two works on the printed programme by John Sharpley and Koh Cheng Jin were discarded with no reasons given. The compensation was a  complimentary drink offered on the house. Strike Two.

Without fanfare, the 65-minute long concert (originally marketed as 90 minutes) began with Chen Zhangyi's Sandcastles. Violinist Arisa Ikeda and pianist April Foo gave an evocative reading with lyrical lines accompanied by rippling keyboard textures, like waves gently lapping on a serene tropical beach.

Bertram Wee's Love Songs for piano trio was sterner than its title suggested. Its 5 movements were atonal and dissonant, with the idea that the course of true love is never easy. Violinist Rida Sayfiddinov, cellist Dzhama Saidkarimov and pianist Thomas Ang covered a full gamut of 20th century technical devices including harmonics, slides, brusque pizzicatos and heavy chords which cemented his case in no uncertain terms.  

A surreal soundscape was created for Ding Jian Han's Slow Jogging On A Not-So-Silent Night, scored for flute (Jeremy Lim), clarinet (Andrew Constantino), violin, cello and piano (Foo), conducted by Marlon Chen. No actual notes were played in its opening minutes, comprising only the sound of air passing through channels or over strings. This soon cystallised into tones, both short and long-held, which generated a Zen-like calm and mysticism.  

Newly commissioned was Mick Lim's #9 (Sharp Nine), a brief work for pipa (Chua Yew Kok), zhongruan (Loi Eevian), violin, viola (Ho Qian Hui) and cello, which ran a course of plucked notes and pizzicatos. The first work to actually resound with a distinctively Oriental idiom was Ho Chee Kong's Echoes Of Fall for marimba (Kevin Castelo), clarinet, gambus (Loi on ruan) and cello. There were virtuoso roles for each in this enjoyable serenade-like work, which could have come from Central Asia.  

The last and most substantial work was Tan Yuting's Chinatown, a song cycle with texts by Tan Chee Lay featuring talented and expressive soprano Angel Cortez. Its scoring with strings, winds, piano and percussion was lush, and two central fast movements took on the form of rhythmic dances. The subjects involved a culinary paradise and a back-alley barber, but Cortez's Chinese pronunciation was indecipherable, again not helped by the lack of texts or translations. Strike Three and you're out.  

Good music performed by dedicated musicians will always endure, but the cause of new music was not honoured with proper contexts and annotations on this occasion, thus coming off as a wasted opportunity.  

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