Sunday, 14 September 2014

Could this be death? - a review

An edited version of this review will be published in The Straits Times on 15 September.

Could this be death?
Cheryl Lee Peixin, soprano, Wong Yun QI, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio
Last Friday, 12 Sept 

Are some people so curious about death, because they have not yet died? Many composers have been fascinated with death and things associated with it, and it is probably the most written-about subject in music, probably ranking second after love. Death may be morbid, but some composers personified death as peaceful, welcoming rest after a hard life. It is with this aim of presenting the many facets of death that Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts alumni Cheryl Lee Peixin and Wong Yun Qi programmed this recital, which was presented by the Young Musicians' Society as part of their ongoing After Eight concert series.

With the opening "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone/Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone" of Britten's Funeral Blues, Lee showcased her alluring, dark-hued lower range and worked her way up towards a belting fortissimo at the end. Also sung in English was Barber's Op. 10 which opened the second half of the recital. Lee deftly changed from one emotion to another within the song, without losing the rich tone of her voice, and accompanied as admirably by Wong.

The duo offered a selection of lieder by Schubert and Strauss in the first half. Lee brought out the frantic, panicking character of the maiden and contrasted it with the placid character of death in Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen. In Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, Wong skilfully painted the murmuring of the raging sea, exercising excellent control and never overpowering Lee. The extent and enormity of loss was shown in a simple yet heart-rending account of Strauss' Allerseelen, and it was paired with the highly emotional Befreit.

Singaporean composer Americ Goh's two works of the same title, Little Deaths (Concert Versions 1.1 and 2.0) stuck out like sore thumbs amidst the repertoire of eighteenth to early nineteenth century works. Written for solo voice, it was a cacophony of jumbled up vocalisations: hisses, swoops, random pitches and exaggeratedly enunciated text (this reviewer could make out the words "oh my god, yes" and "no") without programme notes or an explanation, it did not seem to make sense musically or conceptually. Lee performed these pieces with theatrical flair.

Wong took centre-stage to perform the evocative El Corpus in Sevilla from Albeniz's suite Iberia, where the Spanish folk tune La Tarara is presented firstly as a jaunty procession then in different forms, and in between episodes of a mournful flamenco. Occasional snatches of too much pedal blurred some of the passages, but she effectively captured the languor of the Spanish atmosphere.

Showing no signs of tiring, the duo definitely saved the best for the last, ending off with Wagner's Liebestod from the opera Tristan und Isolde, but not before performing two of Mahler's lieder. All three written originally with orchestral accompaniment. Wong's sensitive accompaniment was always complementary and supportive, musically highlighting the intricate orchestral textures. Throughout the concert, Lee transitioned beautifully between the upper and lower registers of her voice, delivering powerfully glistening high notes over the piano, which was kept at full-lid. An encore, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot chased away any morbid thoughts of the programme anyone might have had and was a reminder to the fantastic musicianship displayed in the concert.

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**have just received an email from Derek Lim, editor of The Flying Inkpot, who pointed out that 'La petit mort', or the little death, is (from Wikipedia), an idiom and euphemism for orgasm. Perhaps this explains Americ Goh's piece a bit more.. Thank you, Derek! :)

Thursday, 11 September 2014

PLAY! by More than Music - a review

An edited version of this article was published in The Straits Times with the title 'Classical music reaching out'.

PLAY! by More than Music
Loh Jun Hong and Gabriel Ng, violin, Abigail Sin, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio
Tuesday


More than Music's approach of making classical music more accessible to public seems to be working like a charm: tickets was sold out yet again days before the concert; and violinists Loh Jun Hong and Gabriel Ng played to a full house in a performance at Orchard Central's Ya Kun outlet over the weekend for a Symphony 92.4's inaugural Cafe Concert.

In PLAY!, which welcomed award-winning violinist Gabriel Ng into their society of musicians, the interesting and varied programme comprised mostly of showpieces. Opening and closing the evening were two works for solo violin, but presented by two.

Bach's Partita no. 1 in B Minor as most know it exists in 8 parts, four dance movements and their doubles which were written twice as fast in notation but played with the same number of impulses in a bar. In what is probably the first of its kind, Loh and Ng overlaid the dance movements with their doubles to create a complex yet coherent web of Bachian counterpoint.

Their playing was wonderfully free, each sensitive to the other's nuances. The faster Courante and Bourrée were delivered with breathtaking speed and accuracy. Likewise, this was also evident in the closing work, Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen in an excellent arrangement for two violins by Jonathan Shin, where the improvisatory interplay gave way to a fiery finale.

The piano was not quite its usual self, and this was more evident when Sin played Debussy's L'isle Joyeuse. Sin's variety of touch and spectrum of tone colour enchanted the audience, but the ravishing radiance of the final bars was mellowed by the muffled tones of the piano. However, the dampened piano worked to Sin's advantage in the first three pieces of Brahms' Op. 118 - late Brahms always sounds better on pianos with darker tones - as she created the tempestuous, brooding, tender and poetic moments in his music.

Three delectable miniatures by Kreisler and a Chopin Nocturne revealed another facet of Loh and Ng. Ng combined the sweet, supple tone of his violin with wit and humour in a performance of Kreisler's Liebeslied and Liebesfreud. Loh, ever the charmer, playfully teased his way through Syncopation, adding rubato wherever he pleased while Sin miraculously kept up with his antics. Later, Loh played Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, arranged by Milstein for violin and piano, with an exquisitely singing tone and delicate phrasing.

Two encores, the Sarabande from Bach's Partita no. 2 by Sin, and Vittorio Monti's ever popular Czardas arranged and performed by Loh and Ng, were gleefully lapped by the audience. The growing number of fans only proves one thing: that classical music is cool, and very much alive.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Listen to the 20th Century: days 2-4 - A Review

An edited version of this review will be published in The Straits Times on 9 September 2014.

Listen to the 20th Century
Southbank Centre, London Sinfonietta, YST Orchestra
SOTA Concert Hall
5-7 September 2014

Day two of mini-festival Listen to the 20th Century presented by the London Sinfonietta and Southbank Centre London featured two Russian works from 1936-7, when Russia was under the Soviet Union, the Stalinist regime which was also nicknamed "the reign of terror".

Instead of the usual narration, this version of Peter and the Wolf was presented alongside a short, non-vocal film by Susie Templeton which won numerous awards, including an Oscar in 2008. Based in cold, wintry Russia, the film effectively complimented the music to bring the story to life. Like the earlier Schoenberg pieces for orchestra of day 1, this was also reduced for an ensemble of 13. The buoyant character of music and light hearted moments in the film had also made it easy for the larger number of younger audience to appreciate. In the film, the wolf had looked like a harmless, badly taxidermied creature, but the trio of horn, clarinet and bassoon gave it the menacing character.

In the second half, the combined orchestra which played Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony filled the entire stage, and at louder moments the orchestra seemed too large for the concert hall. Despite the sheer number of musicians, the best parts of the music were in the second movement when the orchestration was smaller and written for chamber-playing. There were numerous beautiful solos from the concert mistress and woodwinds. In the first and third movements, the strings, especially the violins, lacked warmth of tone, sounding shrill and almost astringent, but this characteristic proved effective in the final movement.

Day three saw a "marathon-concert" of three parts which started at 6pm and ended four and a half hours later with two short intermissions, works presented encompassed the avant-garde, the spiritual, and the minimalist. The first part opened with a recording of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, for boy soprano and electronic tones, digitally synthesised and broadcast through speakers placed all around the hall for a surround-sound effect. The lights were turned off as well, inviting the audience to experience the music without the visual aspect of a performance. Victoria Simmonds came back on stage to sing Berio's eleven folk songs. Simmonds switched effortlessly between the different languages in the set, and was accompanied more than ably by John Constable on the piano. Before this, Constable turned the piano into a percussion instrument with bell-like sonorities by inserting bolts and screws into the body of the piano as instructed by John Cage, and proceeding to play five short works from his Sonatas and Interludes.

The second and third parts focused on the spiritual and meditative compositions which eventually led to minimalism. Steve Reich used motifs from the prosody of speech, transcribed them into musical motifs, and juxtaposed the two together on top of a recorded track in Different Trains. A live string quartet played the work alongside the recorded track with machine-like precision, replicating the monotonous grind of travelling trains and sirens in concentration camps. Arvo Pärt's meditative Fratres fared less well, and was marred by numerous intonation issues. Violinists Laurent Quenelle and Joan Atherton, who played in the quartets earlier, worked tirelessly as soloists for Schnittke's parody-laced Concerto Grosso no. 1, joined by Constable on the harpsichord and some students from the YST orchestra.

Terry Riley's founding work of minimalism In C, written for any amount of instruments and any length of time, was given a late-night performance at 10pm by an eclectic mix of instruments: joining 13 orchestral instruments was an erhu, an accordion, and a yang qin! The instruments created an ebb and flow around a constant tolling note C from a xylophone, sometimes letting the ethnic instruments take centre stage.

The two works before the intermission on the last day were by Asian composers Unsuk Chin and Toru Takemitsu. Chin's 2009 composition Gougalon was percussion-heavy, and required the other members of the chamber ensemble to hold and play a percussion instrument other than their own instrument. In spite of this, the two percussionists were still kept in a frenzy, moving from instrument to instrument trying to play their parts. The musicians employed extended techniques in playing their instruments, bringing across the vivid and extravagant use of colours and messy textures. In stark contrast, Takemitsu's Rain Coming was a fluid, impressionistic soundscape, slightly reminiscent of Debussy, yet with more futuristic harmonies and shrouded in ambiguity.

A long-drawn unison C from the combined orchestra,the final note of Scottish composer James Macmillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie restored order to the last concert where there were "No More Rules" and brought the festival to an end. In British composer Thomas Adès' Chamber Symphony before, fragments of jazz and tonal motifs were sprinkled amidst the atonal, interconnected four movements.

Throughout the 4 days, every musician in the Sinfonietta had shown themselves to be top-notch performers in their field of new music, each having the dedication to learn, and the sensibility and sensitivity to listen, appreciate and interpret the music they were playing.

Although numerous significant composers such as Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb and Milton Babbitt have been left out, this mini festival has been a milestone in the introduction and performance of 20th century music in Singapore with numerous Singapore premieres. After six concerts and five talks over four days by one of the world's leading contemporary classical music ensembles, hopefully the audience who journeyed through this sonic treasure hunt of sounds were challenged and found new aural experiences and enlightenment. If anything, unlike 101 years ago in Paris, at least a riot didn't break out.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Listen to the 20th Century: Early Modernism and the Jazz Age - a review

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 5 September 2014.

Listen to the 20th Century: Early Modernism and the Jazz Age
Southbank Centre/ London Sinfonietta/ YST Orchestra
SOTA Concert Hall
Wednesday 3 September 2014

It is ironic that while the Singapore Symphony Orchestra just played for the BBC Proms in London last night, the London Sinfonietta is here playing at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. This festival of 20th century music by the Southbank Centre and London Sinfonietta encourages the audience to "Listen to the 20th Century", breaking it down into six concerts (including a triple- bill on Saturday) and five talks across four days.

the combined orchestra of YST and London Sinfonietta in the opening works

Starting with what many consider to be the beginning of modern music, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra opened with Debussy's Prelude l'apres midi d'un faune and Webern's Passacaglia. Conducted by Jason Lai, these were cautious and restrained readings, and the orchestra seemed as though they were holding back, even at the climaxes. The lovely flute solos in the Debussy were much too soft and often covered up by the orchestra.

The rest of the concert was played by members of the London Sinfonietta, led by Sian Edwards. While the stage was being readied, BBC Radio 3 presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch engaged the audience by speaking about the works and the contexts in which they were composed.



Although condensed into a smaller ensemble of eleven musicians, the colouristic textures of Schoenberg's highly detailed Five Pieces for Orchestra were clearly brought across, the missing orchestra instruments filled by an electronic synthesiser keyboard. Likewise, the harsh blips, beeps and chugging of industrial machinery in Varese's sound world Octandre were played with machine- like precision.

As the music moved away from serialism and atonality towards jazz, pianist John Constable accompanied mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds in three songs by Kurt Weil. Simmonds looked a little awkward and stiff in her rendition of Surabaya Johnny, standing rooted to the spot with her arms by her side. She loosened up in The Ballad of Sexual Slavery and Le Grand Lustucru. Vocally, she delivered her characters' disenchantment, disillusionment and later artfulness with sophistication, using a tone of voice that was half operatic and half broadway.

The Three Pieces for String Quartet were strange and short miniatures, comprising of rhythmic and melodic fragments, were delicately handled, especially the "wrong-note" chorale in the final piece. If jazz was threatening to break out before, it was finally let loose in the closing work, Milhaud's lively 6-movement La création du monde, based on the African mythology of the creation of the world, of which particularly noteworthy were the bluesy oboe solos which complemented the soulful saxophone solos.

The rest of the Talks and concerts of Listen to the 20th Century take place over the weekend at SOTA, dealing with music of the Soviet era on Friday evening, post-war directions on Saturday and finally the progression into a musical world without rules on Sunday afternoon. Don't miss the chance to catch the London Sinfonietta and the YST Orchestra in action!

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all photos by kind permission of SIFA and credits to Chong Yew.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

What's On Your Mind? - A review

An edited version of this review will be published in The Straits Times on 4 September 2014. 

What's On Your Mind?
Jasper Goh, flute, Tommy Peh, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio
Tuesday

Natalie Ng

Glancing at the highly ambitious programme for the concert, one wondered if it was a flute recital accompanied by piano or piano recital accompanied by a flute. Presented by young flautist Jasper Goh and pianist Tommy Peh, the repertoire showcased a myriad of styles from baroque to jazz to cater to the differing tastes of the audience.

Half shuffling onstage with a sheepish expression to cheers and applause from the audience, Peh launched into the opening prelude of Bach's Partita no. 5 in G Minor without properly settling down at the piano. At best, Peh managed to play all the notes. For the faster movements his tempo was erratic and unsteady, with no sense of pulse. The lines of running notes were also often uneven and hurried, as though he might trip and fall anytime. The slower movements he played with more restraint, yet had no sense of direction. The fiercely tempestuous and highly compressed Third Piano Sonata of Prokofiev which followed was mostly loud heavy-handed, but remotely better than the Bach. The lower notes were often muddied with overtones, and those in the high register were sharp and jarring. For a smaller performance space such as the recital studio, it might have been better if the piano was at half lid rather than fully open.

The works Goh selected to perform were all by French composers, beginning with Jules Mouquet's neoclassical work La Flûte de Pan. When Peh reappeared to accompany Goh it was as though a transformation took place backstage. The opening pastorale was played energetically yet elegantly, with long-limbed melodic lines. In the second movement which depicts Pan and the birds, flourishes of notes in the flute that portrayed birdsong were beautifully echoed by the piano. Peh proved to be a much better accompanist than soloist, complementing Goh's polished playing with much sensitivity and insight. The third movement was agile and playful, and Goh was immaculately precise and rhythmically stable in the rapid, staccatissimo double-tongued passages.

Pierre Sancan's subtle and evocative Sonatine for flute and piano was an atmospheric work with difficulties in both instrument parts. Goh was highly imaginative in his playing, and both flute and piano lines were often woven seamlessly together to create a fine balance in tone and sound.

The next two works for solo piano blurred the lines between classical and jazz, scored out on sheet music but performed as though improvising. Peh dedicated these to his late teachers, Mr Lim Shieh Yih and Mr Ong Lip Tat. Haze, by classically-trained jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara, was a quasi-impressionistic, semi-jazzy work which featured extemporisations and improvisations over a constant, almost hypnotic bass. Peh sat with his head bowed, very much like Keith Jarrett, and gave an intense and highly emotional performance. The Op. 41 Variations by Nikolai Kapustin were a little more light-hearted, jazzing up the famous bassoon solo which opens Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in various virtuosic guises. Peh was clearly in his element, breezing through the technical challenges and animatedly bringing out the characters of each variation.

The closing work, Cesar Franck's monumental Sonata in A Major, only proved Goh's affinity for French music. Franck's masterful writing sees the violin and piano parts given equal treatment, working together to bring across the lush and complex melodies. Peh and Goh brought a glorious close to the recital, playing off each other in the charming and action-packed finale.

So after all that, what's on my mind? Perhaps a book by Proust, a madeleine and tea, and even more french music.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir presents The Bird of Time - A review


The Bird of Time
The Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Victoria Concert Hall
Last Sunday


The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, led by Lim Yau, marked their 20th anniversary with a concert in Victoria Concert Hall on Sunday, in what was probably the first choral concert since the opening of the hall after a 4-year-long refurbishment.

The concert programme was made up entirely of Asian a capella music, featuring a varied selection of works by well-known composers. Titled The Bird of Time, the Singaporean premiere of local composer Zechariah Goh's Péng (鵬), based on a Chinese fable about the metamorphosis of a large fish into a large bird, was an apt opening to the concert. Perhaps due to nerves, the composition's ambiguous opening, the fact that the composer was in the audience, or a combination of all three, the choir sounded unsettled and was initially off to a shaky start. Despite that, they soon gained the confidence needed to portray Goh's highly imaginative word-painting which made use of aleatory, depicting the grandeur and majesty of the large bird as it took flight for the heavens.

The next work on the programme was Rubáiyát, a set of six pieces by Japanese composer Takatomi Nobunaga. Its text was derived from the quatrains of Renaissance philosopher Omar Khayyám, translated from Persian into English then Japanese, and then set in song. Having gone through such transformations in the text, much of the Persian element was also lost in the music. What transpired in the music was the heavy influence of the Western choral tradition, blended with Japanese harmonies. Taking listeners on a wisdom-filled journey from the plainchant-like beginning to the vast expanse of sonority and luscious harmony, sanity to madness, each member of TPCC showed that they were proficient soloists in their own right, yet able to blend beautifully together.

These fine qualities were also showcased in Filipino composer Francisco Feliciano's setting of Psalm 23 in Tagalog instead if the usual English or Latin. The novel juxtaposition of plainchant with Tagalog was further enhanced by the sweet and angelic solos from Isyana Sarasvati. Pamugun, which closed the concert and was also by Feliciano, was rhythmically tight but lacking in character. The mocking of the sparrow as it taunted the hunter could have been much better characterised. Instead of imitating the raw, bright timbres of the Kulintang, the choir looked visibly tired and sounded a tad too polite and polished.

Fairing much better were the two Korean works by Lee Geon Yong. In his Four Songs Without Words, the ethereal harmonies of the outer and more contemplative songs were delightfully contrasted with the more active inner movements, which were a mimicry of sounds and instruments. With such a quirky title as Buckwheat Jelly for Sale, the second was somewhat a soundscape of typical day on a Korean street two or three decades ago. The haggling and sounds of tofu and taffy sellers plying their trade was heightened by the use of percussion - tambourines, gongs and bells - but alas, the tambourines were a little too loud and occasionally drowned out the choir.

Chen Yi's arrangement of the traditional Korean folk tune Arirang was soulfully dished out as an encore. Happy 20th birthday TPCC, and wishing you many more years of music-making!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Chamber.Sounds presents New Chamber Operas - A Review

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 28th August 2014 with the title 'Sweet Sounds of Chamber Operas'.

New Chamber Operas
Chamber.Sounds
Esplanade Recital Studio
Last Tuesday


Local contemporary ensemble Chamber.Sounds had their beginnings in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 2005, and have been presenting a concert of local and original new music annually since 2011. In what seemed to be their most ambitious project yet, they premiered four chamber operas specially written for them in a concert yesterday, following a successful call for proposals for commissioning early last year. The same programme was also performed a day earlier on Tuesday as a preview for children and students, which this reviewer attended.

Chamber operas, as their name suggests, employ a much smaller ensemble and cast. Hence, the musicians share the stage with the singers and are sometimes involved in the action. In the final opera, Canadian composer Rita Ueda's One Thousand White Paper Cranes for Japan, musicians were dressed in white instead of the usual black, and made to shuffle around the stage at the beginning, as though wandering souls leaving this world for the next.

A heart-warming story with a happy ending, her work was based on a real life story of a Canadian boy who began a fund-raising project for the victims of the 2011 tsunami which impacted Japan. Although teeming with newfangled compositional techniques, multimedia (lighting and video) and conceptually strong, most of it was lost in translation. Without a synopsis, explanation or a copy of the music, the audience would not be able to fully grasp the content.

Opening the concert was Australian composer Nicole Murphy's work, The Kamikaze Mind, based on a book of the same title. The strange and highly philosophical work was made up of recovered fragments from the mind of an astronaut who launched himself into a black hole. His past comes back to find him, consisting of a He, his younger self, and a She, a former lover. Baritone Daniel Ho's deep voice and clear enunciation was a joy to listen to, and he was complimented by the lyrical and lighter voices of tenor Jeremy Koh and Bernadeta Astari.

Also in the same vein but less strange was local composer Chen Zhangyi's Window Shopping. This tonal and light-hearted work had a mix of elements such as neo-Baroque, Impressionism and Broadway. The narrative juxtaposed two differing attitudes of a lady who was shopping for shoes, the more contemplative and mature older version of her was contrasted alongside the younger, feistier self. Maybe because of the similar vocal ranges of both characters, it was difficult to make out their singing. Perhaps it might have worked better if one character was an alto instead of two sopranos.

Japanese composer Naomi Sekiya's Winds of Summer Fields was the most outstanding, albeit disturbing work presented. Sekiya set four poems of Emily Dickinson to music, which have central themes of insanity, pain and death. On top of three long-haired, gothic-looking singers dressed in black and reminiscent of the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth, there were three other non-singing roles which added to the drama. These took the form of three dancers, dressed in black bottoms and white tops, writhing and twisting in a sinuous and sinister form, with creepy facial expressions to boot. Of the four poems-movements, the first and third were loud and thumping, while the second and fourth were more melancholic in nature, not unlike the nostalgia and longing evoked in slow English country folk songs.

To present four operas in two hours was not an easy feat, and one can only imagine the sheer amount of work that the musicians, singers and conductor Clarence Tan have put in. So kudos to Chamber.Sounds for yet another successful concert, and in their continuing effort of promoting new local music.