Monday, 21 July 2014

Composer profile - Tze Toh

"Then there'll be a pot of gold beside you," he joked, when I mentioned I was wearing a rainbow coloured top. Up-and-coming young composer Toh Tze Chin, or Tze (pronounced 'Zee' when Anglicised) as he would like to be known, was meeting me for the first time to talk about his works and upcoming concert.

Tze, who has a computer science degree, turned to music after working for 2 years and coming to the realisation that he didn't want a desk bound job relating to his field of study. He then enrolled in Laselle-SIA college of the arts to pursue a music diploma, and has been composing and performing seriously since 2007, and his compositions have won awards and have been performed locally and overseas at international events.

Listening to his first album from 2011, Stories from Wonderland, his compositions come across as a blend of mostly jazz infused with local elements, a sort of 'fusion' music, and he likens his music to the local culture: unique, diverse and yet harmoniously co-existing side-by-side. He describes his music as diverse, from the melodic and lyrical, to descriptive and evocative soundscapes; from traditional/Indian music to jazz or classical influenced parts.

The Looking Glass ensemble had its beginnings as a trio (piano, saxophone, drums) with Indian violin, or with erhu (a Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument). In his search for an identity for a Singaporean's music/a Singapore sound, he founded Tze n Looking Glass, inspired by the diverse cultures here and Singapore's unique identity as a gateway between east and west, a melting pot of sorts, and started exploring with Indian and Chinese fusion. Tze decided one day to try putting both ethnic stringed instruments together with the jazz trio, and the rest, they say, is history. Of course the combination of Western, Indian and Chinese instruments was not without problems: all three use different tuning systems, different modes, and read different types of notation. The differences were eventually ironed out with a lot of time jamming together, listening, learning about each other's cultures (in ethnic instruments, culture and even religion is inextricably linked with music) a bit of transcribing.

Because he was trained as a jazz pianist and mostly self-taught as a composer, the way he creates music is different from other classically-trained composers. He first imagines the sound world, then uses the instruments and textures to recreate what he imagines. His compositions are diverse but can be separated into two separate paths, fusion jazz and film music.

Tze counts video game music composer Nobuo Uematsu and film composers Ryuichi Sakamoto and Ennio Morricone as his primary influences. He is fascinated with the minimalist style which Sakamoto employs and the layering of textures in his music. He enjoys the challenge of writing music to fit a specific time limit, emotions and action. "In film music you have to be concise. It's all about capturing the moments and feelings in the scene within the length of it. If it's 15 seconds long then you only have 15 seconds to work your magic," he explains. He has written for numerous animations as well as films; his most recent being the original score for filmmaker Royston Tan's short film, Popiah.

When not writing for films, each of his compositions usually lasts longer than 5 minutes. He likens an experience when listening or performing music to a journey, an exploration into a 'wonderland' where the unexpected and impossible can happen. He expanded his Looking Glass Ensemble into an orchestra for the next album, Return to Wonderland. He had in mind an 'epic' sound which he wanted to create, and decided to try writing for an orchestra. There was one problem: he had no idea how to do so! He then got his hands on all the resources on scoring, orchestration and instruments he could find and read late into the night. The result was a highly successful Return to Wonderland concert and recorded album featuring the now expanded Looking Glass Orchestra directed by Tze, released in 2012. His upcoming concert, Alternate Worlds, sees the addition of a chorus into the mix. Since then, with the fluid nature of the ensemble and their appearance in many guises, Tze decided to shorten their name to Looking Glass, appearing as TLG, or Tze n Looking Glass.

Tze strongly believes in the transcendence of music across cultures, boundaries and genres, and that opportunities should be given to anyone who wants to try making music together. The TLG is a platform for classically and traditionally trained musicians to be able to experience other kinds of music, such as jazz, Indian music, Latin, and to learn how to improvise collectively. It is also a space for musicians of different backgrounds to interact and learn from each other. As such, he regularly holds music-jam sessions, and welcomes budding musicians who would like to join him.

In this upcoming concert, Alternate Worlds, musicians move out of their familiar territory to explore different kinds of music: the string quartet gets to explore funky blues, the wind quartet, video-game-soundtrack-inspired music, and the audience is in for a treat - to experience different musical worlds all in one concert from choral, film, jazz, latin to improvisations and more.

Come and watch Tze and the Looking Glass Orchestra in their concert Alternate Worlds | もうひとつの世界 happening next Saturday, 26 July 2014, at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Get yourself lost in the convergence of the different musical worlds as they explore jazz, tango, film, anime,  and video game music. Also presented will be a special performance of the film score for Royston Tan's Popiah. Email TLGO.Singapore@gmail.com to purchase tickets.

Meanwhile, here's the trailer for their upcoming concert:
http://youtu.be/0y_5Vc2WEyE

and the highlights from their Wonderland series:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSGl8CgpNfc

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Concerti I Solisti III - A Review

An edited version of this was published in The Straits Times with the heading 'Budding talents shine with orchestra' on 21 July 2014. 

Concerti I Solisti III
OMM/ Seow Yibin, conductor, Rebecca Lee, clarinet, Joshua Evan Lee, Lin Xiangning, piano
SOTA Concert Hall
19 July 2014 Saturday

With the increasing number of musicians in Singapore, it is heartening to see that they are given chances to perform solo, backed by an orchestra. Nine different solo works were presented across three concerts in the past week, two of which take the form of a piano concerto festival.

However, unlike the soloists of the piano concerto festival, the three who performed with the Orchestra of the Music Makers under the baton of Seow Yibin were chosen by merit: they were the winners an internal concerto competition held by the School Of The Arts (SOTA) earlier this year.

Opening the concert was Weber's single-movement Concertino for Clarinet, op. 26 performed by Rebecca Lee. Although visibly nervous at first, Lee handled the the long-limbed melodic lines beautifully with a fine lyrical tone. The quicker sections she also tackled with aplomb, sometimes racing ahead and leaving the orchestra struggling to keep up.

Due to the shorter lengths of the solo works presented, the orchestra, too, was given a chance
in the spotlight with Shostakovich's enigmatic Ninth Symphony. Composed just after the Second World War and initially intended as a long, large-scale work for chorus and orchestra, Shostakovich eventually wrote it as a short and compact symphony in the neo-classical style, combining classical elements with his whimsical and quirky harmonies.

Seow opted to conduct from memory, and this proved to be an advantage as the orchestra sounded tighter and more focused. Woodwinds were the strongest sections here, with the jaunty woodwind solos which peppered the first movement, the soulful clarinet solos that open the second movement. The brasses also showed solidarity as a section with a strong tone and perfect intonation as they duelled a slightly out-of-tune bassoon towards the end of the third movement. Also particularly notable was the brilliance of the flute and the trumpet in their solos.

From the iconic clarinet opening trill and glissando to the muted trumpet solos, it was as though the orchestra had morphed into a jazz orchestra during the intermission for Joshua Evan Lee's rendition of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The Rhapsody was a bluesy, laid-back affair, the performance every bit as suave as the young soloist who sauntered on stage in skinny black jeans and a matching blue-black coat and tie.

Lee took his time with the solos, deliberately but tastefully stretching his phrases with elastic freedom; and Seow was only too happy to indulge him. Here, the strings regained their confidence to produce a full, luscious sound for the slow theme in the second half. Due to the acoustics of the concert hall, it was a pity that the piano was often drowned out when the whole orchestra played loud passages together with it.

The more transparent orchestration in the first movement of Grieg's Piano Concerto allowed Lin Xiangning to fare a little better. Ably accompanied by the orchestra, Lin varied her touch and tone to switch effortlessly between the dramatic and the poetic themes, and played the running passages with precision and clarity. Bringing the concert to a feisty close, it was only during the cadenza that Lin unleashed her prowess, building up to the climax and suddenly sounding much more powerful than before.

It certainly remains to be seen in a few years how these budding young talents will progress, if given the right mentorship.

Monday, 30 June 2014

21st Singapore International Piano Festival Day 4: Piotr Anderszewski - A Review

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 1 July 2014 with the heading 'Quirky Surprises at Every Corner'. 

21st Singapore International Piano Festival
Piotr Anderszewski
SOTA Concert Hall
29 June 2014

When it comes to interpreting Bach's keyboard music, there are the purists who insist that it is a travesty when pianists use the pedal; there are the romantics who romanticise the music excessively with copious amount of pedalling and indulgent tempo fluctuations; and then there is Piotr Anderszewki.

The Polish pianist gave the closing recital to this year's Piano Festival with three Bach suites on the programme, which sandwiched Schumann's Eighth Novelette in F# minor and the second book of Janacek's On An Overgrown Path.

The last and longest of Schumann's novelettes is made up of many sections, encompassing multi-faceted characters of Schumann's personality. Anderszewski unpacked the contrasting characters of passionate, quietly reflective and joyful into a comprehensible and completely accessible performance with clarity, intelligence and musical insight.

Janacek's On An Overgrown Path are deeply private diary entries chronicling his life. Anderszewski showed a more personal and introspective side in the second volume, which comprises of five short and untitled pieces (nos, 10-15). In a lapse of concentration or slip of memory, he missed out no. 13 and went straight to no. 14. Realising his mistake, he inserted it after 14 without batting an eyelid and continued on. 

The highlight of the recital was most definitely the Bach suites. In playing them Anderszewski taunted, teased, caressed and cajoled the piano, daringly placing accents at the most unexpected of places to reveal hidden melodic lines and intentionally highlighting harmonic dissonances with the use of more pedal. Playing all of the repeats, he made sure to differentiate the first time from the second by embellishing them differently, adding in little melodic runs and turns. He sometimes seemed as if he was speeding and threatening to let go of the reins, but was always fully in control of every phrase. If anything, Anderszewski looked like he was enjoying himself the whole time, spontaneously improvising his way along and having much fun while doing so.

At every corner there were surprises, quirky things he did which worked for him, but probably only for him no one else even if they tried. The emotional heart of the recital was the Sarabande from the Sixth English suite, where the sensitivity of his touch and remarkable sense of voicing and balance resulted in a detached faraway sound. Also particularly memorable was the Gavotte from the same suite, where he repeated the melody an octave higher in the second time, making it sound as though played on a toy piano.

Persistent applause from the audience was rewarded with two encores - Bartok's 3 Hungarian Folk songs from the Csík district and Bagatelles no. 1-3 from Beethoven Op. 126 - performed in the wholly original style of Anderszewski.

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At the  post-concert autograph session where he kindly obliged my requests for autographs a picture with Sheep.


Saturday, 28 June 2014

21st Singapore International Piano Festival Day 2: Behzod Abduraimov - A review

21st Singapore International Piano Festival
Behzod Abduraimov
SOTA Concert Hall
27 June 2014

Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit stands undisputed as one of the most technically demanding pieces in the standard repertoire for pianists, and it has always been a hot favourite for young, competition-winning pianists to include in their recital repertoire. Around this time last year I watched second-prize winner of the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition Louis Schwizgebel conclude his recital with it, and last evening, it brought 24-year old Behzod Abduraimov's recital to a dazzling close. Having been catapulted into fame by his victory in the 2009 London International Piano Competition when he was only 18, Abduraimov has been establishing himself on an international level, giving performances worldwide and recording exclusively with Decca. Although he convincingly portrayed the seductive, watery world of Ondine and the hauntingly trance-like swaying of the body at the gallows at sunset in Le Gibet, Scarbo from Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit was arguably the show stopper of the evening. The frenzied hand-crossing, repeated motifs and flashes of notes depicting a manic goblin disappearing and reappearing unpredictably were confidently tackled. 

It fit perfectly well in the programme, which had an underlying theme of death and the imagination of after-death experiences. The opening two works centred on the funeral march: Beethoven's Twelfth Sonata in Ab major, Op. 26 whose third movement is a funeral march 'on the death of a hero', and Chopin's Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49, which begins with a. funeral march. When one thinks of the term "funeral march", what comes to mind is usually a weighty, sombre, and slow. Abduraimov was neither sombre nor slow, thundering through both works. Perhaps he could be forgiven for the Chopin as it is after all, a fantasy, but apart from the fast and loud, there was little much else to offer. The first movement of Beethoven was played with much restraint, but Abduraimov whirled through the second and fourth movements. His running notes often sounded muddy and muffled, perhaps due to the echoey acoustics of the hall coupled with misjudgements and over pedalling. To end off the first half, he showed his athletic prowess in the Saint-Saëns/Liszt/Horowitz Dans Macabre, a one-man orchestra conjuring up the diabolical scenes of skeletons dancing to the devil's fiddle-playing. 

Aptly placed to open the second half was Liszt's Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, placed in between the darker works as if a confession or form of atonement. Here, Abduraimov played with more sensitivity to the harmonic nuances and textures, but lacked the maturity that would turn his playing into a profoundly moving work. With his imagination, talent, and technical facility, one can definitely expect greater things from him in the years to come. 



Friday, 27 June 2014

21st Singapore International Piano Festival Day 1: Kun-Woo Paik - A review

21st Singapore International Piano Festival
Kun-Woo Paik
SOTA Concert Hall
26 June 2014

If Schubert wrote a song cycle for the piano, tonight's programme would have been exactly it. Korean pianist Kun-Woo Paik's recital comprised entirely of selected pieces from Schubert's later piano works - the 6 Moments Musicaux D780, Vier Impromptus D980, and Drei Klavierstücke D946 - which he arranged into a specific order and played without breaks for applause, as if performing an entire song cycle.

Beginning with the soft, single melodic line after a unison note, Paik created the atmosphere of melancholic beauty as he brought the half-filled concert hall into the world of Schubert's songs. The first of the four impromptus was sad, subdued and questioning, yet not overly indulgent or excessive. From there, just like how Schubert often put the parallel major after minor, Paik launched into the bright, sunny no. 3 of the Drei Klavierstücke, accelerating towards the calm middle section, then afterwards racing to the end.

The middle section of the second Moments Musicaux which followed brought to mind a Chopin nocturne, and the fourth played after sounded as though it had been a keyboard prelude lifted off from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier set! Later on, no. 2 from D946 proved a gripping, sincere and heartfelt rendition, contrasting the simple opening with the almost Beethovenian episode in the middle. With such a programme, Paik revealed the musical influences which Schubert was inspired by, and showed how later composers, in turn, drew from Schubert's music.

The Eb-major impromptu (no. 2) was a slick, well-oiled roller-coaster ride, the undulating waves of notes unfurled with crystal clarity and control. Here, Paik rarely used the pedal unlike the Gb major impromptu (no. 3) before it.

Throughout the entire evening, Paik was ever sensitive in his playing, always intentionally singing out the melodies. He was a picture of grace and poise, maintaining a dignified composure at the piano while masterfully interpreting the music with a controlled passion. He clearly understood the geist of the works, carefully selecting his tempos and tastefully using rubato to bring forth a shaded, nuanced palette of colours from the Steinway.

The hymn-like chorale, no. 6 from D780, prayerfully and thoughtfully delivered as though a benediction, brought the recital to a close on a unison A-flat, neither major nor minor and unresolved, like the open-endedness of life's questions which permeates Schubert's works. 

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Albert Lin: Reflections on our local classical music scene

Fellow Straits Times music critic, blogger, pianist and friend Albert Lin has penned a highly thought-provoking piece on the music scene in Singapore which deserves a re-post, so I'm posting it here. The original article can be found here.

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BY ALBERT LIN

Despite vast investments by the government into the arts and music education in Singapore, the annual President's Young Performers Concert remains the one realistic opportunity for our young musicians to perform with the national orchestra. Over the years, it has featured both accomplished professionals and promising young students, ranging from violinists Chan Yoong-Han and Grace Lee to pianists Lim Yan and Abigail Sin. But one curious fact is that apart from violist Lim Chun in 2002, only pianists and violinists have been selected.

The obvious reason is that the piano and violin are seen as the glamour instruments of classical music, and are considered the conventional choice for soloists and hence would be easier on box-office sales. But if the purpose of this concert is to showcase the brightest talents on our shores, surely then the opportunity should go to the most deserving and not just the most popular? Why not feature a work by a promising composer too, considering the general lack of support the orchestra shows for them during their season? Attaching our country's name to the orchestra does not give it a national identity, and their debut at the BBC proms will see our nation represented by a Chinese-American conductor with an American concertmaster and a Swiss soloist performing a concerto by a Chinese-American composer. Are we so ashamed of our own talents? Perhaps the powers that be behind the orchestra should take a leaf out of the playbook of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, whose recent tour of China featured our very own Jazz Impressario Jeremy Monteiro and works of composers Eric Watson, Kelly Tang, and Ho Chee Kong. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Yeh Tsung was hired by the SSO instead. And to add insult to injury, on Harrison Parrott's (SSO's management team for their proms appearance) website, it states that "in support of Singaporean talent, local musicians and composers feature prominently in the concert season." What blatant hypocrisy. If they are so ashamed of locals, perhaps they should drop the word "Singapore" from their name and affix some ambiguous term like "Metropolitan" to it instead.

According to a former arts administrator, featuring local talents brings down the standard of the event. An interesting point considering this said person inserts herself into SSO chamber series programmes whenever possible, and she no longer does it for a living. If the consensus is that engaging a foreign artist is a safer option, one must not have witness the debacle that was Li Yundi doing his best David Helfgott impersonation in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and whose rumoured fee would have funded the amount SSO pays to its President's Young Performers for the next 40 years.

This attitude has unfortunately rubbed off on other musical groups in Singapore, unconsciously or otherwise. Before I continue any further, I must reiterate that I have no problem against the presence of foreign musicians. Singapore has benefitted greatly and some of these musicians have made it a point to contribute to the society that welcomed them with open arms. Spaniard flautist Roberto Alvarez has single-handedly transformed the landscape of flute playing in Singapore, and violinists Alexander Souptel and Zhang Zhen Shan have trained a legion of prize winners. The argument is not whether foreigners or locals are better, but against the belief that foreigners are better not based on merit but because their passports are of a different colour.

But if these groups are dipping their hands into the coffers of the National Arts Council, whose kitty comes from taxes paid by Singaporeans, then they have a duty to do more for the locals. Or are we only good enough for them to take money from and nothing else? It's bad enough that their sense of self-entitlement sees them demand that society subsidize their hobby.

It is telling that the SSO ceased its partnership with the Public Service Commission and stopped awarding scholarship holders a place in the orchestra upon graduation. And since then, how many Singaporeans have joined them? Oh, sure they hire locals when they need freelance players to fill the space, but that's only if they're desperate for numbers while their more established players go on leave for concerts nobody wishes to play for. How many born-and-bred Singaporeans currently play in the orchestra? A whopping 12!

Can you imagine an American orchestra with only 10% of its members local? Being globalized means that the influx of foreigners is inevitable, but it does not mean that locals and foreigners do not stand on equal footing. Are some of the foreigners being hired better than our locals? And we are not even talking about cheaper alternatives. So if the hired guns are neither better nor cheaper, it indeed is puzzling as to why they were preferred.

What’s the point of spending all that cash on lavish events such as Singapore Day in London (which interestingly is not open to public unless you have a Singaporean friend) or the Singapore Biennale? To prove a point that Singaporeans are only worth celebrating when there’s an incentive to do so? Or is it meant to placate the dissenting voices? To claim that enough is being done for local musicians/artists based on one-off events is akin to saying that one is an excellent spouse because you bought your partner flowers on his/her birthday, while sleeping with his/her best friend for the other 364 days of the year.

Why are we encouraging our youngsters to pursue an education/career in music, if we are here putting roadblocks up for them when they return? Are we just creating a market to support ourselves? So that we create an environment where we have enough students interested in music enough to purchase concert tickets?

What exactly awaits them when they do return to Singapore? How many talents are being laid to waste playing in random orchestras and playing wedding gigs? How many choose to not even return at all?

It indeed is their perogative if they prefer to hire foreigners, but they should also cut the pretence about supporting local talent and do away with patronizing events such as the President's Young Performers concert which often sees the orchestra under-prepared and concertmaster missing from action.

If this is the blueprint for the future of the Arts in Singapore, then we are doomed. Right now it is not about culture, but creating a money-spinning industry aligned with the rest of Singapore.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Beethoven/Katsaris Concerto no. 5, 'Emperor' - CD Review

Sometimes, in a concerto, the orchestra gets all the good parts - and the role of the soloist is to accompany the orchestra by playing arpeggios and other embellishments while the other instruments belt out the heart-on-your-sleeve melody. One case in point is the second movement of Brahms' violin concerto where, after woodwinds set the stage, the melody enters, profound, gorgeous and unassumingly innocent, only that it is not by the solo violin, but the first oboe. The long oboe solo is so complete and self-sufficient -- what more needs to be said? -- that violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate refused to perform the work, remarking, "I don't deny that it's fairly good music, but does anyone imagine that I'm going to stand on the rostrum, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the Adagio?"


French-Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris has transcribed and recorded a solo version of Beethoven's Concerto no. 5 in E-flat, Emperor, explaining his reasons in the CD sleeve notes for doing so:
... I have always felt a degree of frustration regarding the magnificent introductory tutti in the first movement, which is the exclusive preserve of the orchestra. Naturally I was appalled not to find it in the piano score, and so I determined to appease my (avowedly selfish!) 55-year-old longing by making this transcription...

On the CD is two versions of the Emperor concerto, one version conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and accompanied by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and the other, a world premiere recording of the solo piano arrangement. Katsaris is no stranger to transcriptions, especially those of Beethoven's music, having been the first to record Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven's entire Symphony cycle between 1983-89 on Teldec. This disc is produced by Katsaris' own Piano21 label instead of a bigger or more commercial recording company.

Katsaris' arrangement fills in the grand orchestral tutti parts with tremolos and octaves, and plays them with such great energy and drive that the outer movements are considerably faster than the orchestral versions. In fact, sacrilegious as it may sound, if listening to the solo piano transcription as background music, one might not even notice the absence of the orchestra!

After a while, though, one gets a sense that Katsaris might be trying too hard to produce an orchestral sound on the piano, with the tremolandos and hammering out the block chords. In the first movement, especially at sections where the piano echoes the orchestra or vice versa in short phrases, the timbre of the orchestra is missed, and the chords repeated on the piano seem inevitably pointless. The adagio is an oasis of calm and beauty, its transparent textures providing respite from the pounding in the outer movements. There were snatches of sensitivity in places, but the need for 'being' an orchestra overtakes that at times.

Katsaris is fleet-footed and nimble in the rondo. His transcription tries convincingly to differentiate between the piano and the orchestra part by adding thicker textures and more notes into the orchestral parts, but it results in those passages sounding cluttered and dense. Still, his playing is marked with clarity and vigour, although he is not the most subtle of pianists.

This CD is probably only a must-get for fans of the Liszt piano transcriptions of orchestral music or fans of the Emperor concerto, otherwise, one is not missing out on much.

Rating: 3.5/5

This CD will be available for purchase from 7 July 2014.