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.

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.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Four Musical Offerings..

Singapore turns 49 in less than a week! In celebration of our national day, Plink Plonk Plunk takes a look at what three of Singapore's ensembles offer:

No new NDP theme song this year? There's still a new song: "It's Here, I'll Stay" was written by local conductor/composer Kah Chun Wong and singer Jeremy Teng, and performed by the Asian Contemporary Ensemble and sung by Jeremy. The unique instrumentation (accordion, indian percussion, chinese flute, cello, guitar and piano) symbolises Singapore's diverse cultures, and the video, filmed in various locations in Singapore, features cute stuffed toys!  



The second takes the form of a FREE CONCERT(!!!) at the Esplanade Concert Hall on the 10th of August at 3pm featuring works by local composers Zechariah Goh, Kelly Tang, Ho Chee Kong and Tsao Chieh, performed by Orchestra Collective, an independent musical ensemble presenting classical and wind band repertoire. Listen out for melodies from popular folk tunes and patriotic songs in this concert celebrating our country, directed by their music director, Lien Boon Hua.

The third and fourth are also free concerts by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. One of them is a lunchtime concert happening TOMORROW at 12:30pm at the newly refurbished Victoria Concert Hall (details found here), and the other is also on the 10th of August, 6pm at the Botanic Gardens Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage (details here). Works featured are popular classics such as Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla overture and the Simpsons theme, and also on the programme are Kelly Tang's works Sketches of Singapore and an arrangement of Dick Lee's Home.

Long weekend and don't know what to do? Do a concert-hop from the Esplanade (3pm) to the Botanic Gardens (6pm) to end off celebrations with a bang!

Happy birthday, Singapore!! 

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Chamber.Sounds presents: New Chamber Operas - An Advertisment

You've heard of a double- or a triple-bill, but what about a quadruple one? Chamber Sounds, a contemporary music ensemble of composers and musicians, is presenting four chamber operas in a single concert. Composers featured are from various countries, and the operas cover themes from shoe-shopping to the poetry of Emily Dickinson.


Come, join them in an unforgettable night of music and drama on the 27th of August 2014 at the Esplanade Recital Studio Email chamber.sounds@gmail.com or call Alicia (9367 5883) or Jeremiah (97828503) for tickets!

Or, if you can't attend, support the musicians and composers by liking their Facebook page, following them on Youtube, or giving generously here.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Alternate Worlds - A Review

An edited version of this article will be published in The Straits Times on 28 July 2014.

Alternate Worlds 
Tze n Looking Glass Orchestra
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday 26 July 2014

Looking through the programme booklet, one gets a sense that largely self-taught composer and jazz pianist Tze Toh was trying to do too much with too little time. He had put together a "genre concert" of his compositions which promised video game music, jazz, funk, world music, choral works, film soundtracks and improvisations; these were to be performed by ensembles of various combinations: a saxophone quartet, a children's choir, a string quartet, a wind quartet, a solo saxophone and the Looking Glass Orchestra (which was really an ensemble of 12 musicians). Throughout the concert Tze rushed around like a busy host, introducing the performers and the pieces either before or after each item, talking about the works as the crew set the stage.

Tze was at the piano for most of the concert, except for two pieces, Adventures of the Goggled Giraffe and Prelude to Avalon, which were played by 7-year-old Aone Ozaki. The former was a lively and comical miniature for piano orchestra, and the latter was a sentimental solo piano piece. Ozaki handled these expressively with sensitive pedalling and a varied touch, with no sign of nervousness.

Like the above mentioned pieces, many of the works were written with visuals in mind, evoking a scene, a mood, or a memory. Opening the concert was the two-movement Island of Spring, inspired by the music of film composer Ennio Morricone. Scored for boy solo, children's choir and orchestra, Tze clearly knew how to exploit the various timbres to conjure up the lush imagery. The contemplative prelude which led into the joyous second movement could have been much better sustained by the visibly nervous choir and boy soloist Timothy Tan, but at the reprise of the opening theme they seemed to have warmed up and gained confidence, which made all the difference in sound. 

Mornings and A Thread Through Time were also poignant, nostalgic works scored for strings. The latter was composed for Royston Tan's short film Popiah, and featured Christina Zhou as a violin soloist. Zhou's tender and heartfelt playing was immediately transformed in the next piece, Passing Morning, a catchy jazz number which required the string quartet to play in a bluesy style. 

The other jazz works featured Teo Boon Chye on the saxophone and Wendy Phua on the electric bass. Most were improvisatory passages over a set chord progression. Although Teo was a master at improvising, belting out long complicated lines and sultry tunes, his intonation was less than perfect. Playing without first tuning, he remained annoyingly sharp whenever he played on the soprano saxophone. 

Jokingly mentioning that he improvised when he was too lazy to write music, Tze included two improvisations on the programme, which he performed with Teo. The first was more structured and had rhythms reminiscent of Albeniz's Tango, while the second which ended off the concert was more fragile and delicate. Tze and Teo bounced ideas and themes off each other, creating music on the spot out of nothing.

Tze has shown that he can take any combination of instruments, any genre of music which he set out to write, and together with the Looking Glass Orchestra, create alternate worlds of sounds that are appealing to all ages. 

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.