Monday, 21 April 2014

Back to Bach - A Review

An edited version of this article appeared in the Straits Times on 21 April 2014 with the heading 'Powerful Performance Back to Bach'.

Back to Bach
Kenneth Hamilton, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday

Natalie Ng

Because he played a programme full of lesser-known composer Alkan's works at his recital last year, Scottish virtuoso pianist Kenneth Hamilton explained that he returned this year with a concert centred around Bach, arguably the most famous composer of all time. Speaking in between pieces, Hamilton introduced each work, giving humorous anecdotes about the composers and pieces before performing.

The recital opened and ended with two monumental Liszt works, the Fantasy on B-A-C-H and the emotionally charged Variations on Bach's 'Weinen, klagen'; and within the opening chords he showed, despite his lanky frame, a powerful presence in his playing, building up a massive wall of sound. The Variations were aptly prefaced by the Busoni-Bach choral prelude Ich Ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, which fit thematically and musically.

For most of the evening it was as though the Steinway piano in the Recital Studio had been transformed into a grand five-manual organ in a majestic cathedral - Hamilton gave a technically, intellectually and musically commanding performance, emphasising the qualities of harmonic daring and refinement in the Liszt, and showing sheer intensity in Busoni's arrangement of the Chaconne. When he performed nothing could disturb his concentration, not even the constant clicking from the piano's damper pedal every time it was depressed during the entire duration of the first half.

As though a palate-cleanser from the excesses of Romanticism, the only 'proper Bach' featured was the Fifth French Suite in G. Unlike the Liszt Fantasy before it, he sat unmoving over the keyboard, used the pedal sparingly, and teased out the delicate textures, playing the slower Sarabande and Loure in a quasi-improvisatory manner.

Busoni's arrangement of the three choral preludes Brahms wrote before his death were a reflection of Bach's, and proved to be a sweet and sentimental opening to the second half of the programme. Following it was a witty rendition of Rachmaninoff's arrangement of the E Major Solo Violin Partita, for as much as it tried to be Bachian, the sparkly prelude and fast-paced gigue sandwiching the leisurely gavotte kept giving away Rachmaninoff's quirky side.

Bringing an end to the recital was a suitably appropriate encore, the slightly indulgent Percy Grainger arrangement of John Dowland's Now, O Now, I Needs Must Part, originally a sixteenth century part song for voices. The back of the programme booklet shows a cartoon of Hamilton at the piano, facing the reader with a speech bubble saying, "I'll be Bach", a pun on the word 'back'. With such innovative programmes and a wide fan base, one can be sure that he would, indeed, be back to perform in the years to come.


A post-concert picture with Prof. Hamilton outside the recital studio. After two years and two email interviews, I finally got to meet him in person :)

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

"I'm annoyed by almost anything played on an electric guitar..." - interview with Scottish piano virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton

Scottish piano virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton returns to Singapore to perform an all Bach recital! Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with the professor in an email interview ahead of his recital here.

Hello again Prof. Hamilton, congratulations on last year's sold-out performance and a very warm welcome back to Singapore! This is your 7th (or is it 8th?) trip to perform here, what do you think of the audience here in Singapore and are they different elsewhere?

I beginning to lose count myself of how many times I’ve played in Singapore! But I do always enjoy coming here—the energy of the society is almost palpable. And it’s certainly visible. The Gardens at the Bay, and the new developments across the water from the Esplanade seem to be straight out of the future—H.G. Wells’ Shape of things to Come has obviously arrived. In fact, I’m not sure Wells could have imagined anything quite like Marina Bay these days!

As far as audiences are concerned, there does seem to be a lively open-mindedness and curiosity in Singapore about Classical music. And Singapore is of course the ideal bridge between Western and Eastern cultures. The more moribund “old folks home” aspects of the European Classical music tradition haven’t quite reached here yet—luckily. There’s a sense of engagement, and some really splendid native talent. A couple of years ago at a masterclass I heard two Singaporean pianists in their relatively early teens play respectively one of the Liszt Paganini Studies and the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue with tremendous verve and panache. It reminded me of what Liszt once said about Chopin’s student Karl Filtsch: when younger folk like this start to tour, then the older players ought to think about shutting up shop!

Since this year your entire recital is focused on Bach, let's talk a bit about his music. Bach is probably the most arranged/transcribed composer in the history of music, and his music (or some variations or extracts of them) has been used in commercials, movies and a lot of popular culture. Why do you think this is so?

Well, to quote Ben Johnson’s comment on Shakespeare, J.S. Bach “isn’t for an age, but for all time”. And his music also seems less tied to specific instruments or formats than most other music. Bach himself was an inveterate arranger; his own music can accordingly be adapted, or can adapt itself, to a myriad of guises—the quality always shines through. Sometimes it seems even better in an arrangement stripped of the limitations of its original incarnation. I know this sounds like sacrilege to some people, but I do find the Bach-Busoni Chaconne for piano to be more powerful than the original for violin. The potential in the music reaches its fulfilment on the piano, whereas the piece seems to be striving desperately for the unattainable on the violin. Of course, the latter is a different artistic aim. As usual, it’s a matter of taste.

(Bach's Chaconne for Solo Violin, BWV 1004 found here)

Which is your favourite work of Bach's and why?

To take a work as a whole, probably the B-minor Mass for its concentrated grandeur. I find the St Matthew Passion—I’m sorry—a little too long overall. On the other hand, the opening chorus, “Kommt, Ihr Töchter” is certainly one of the most stunning pieces of music ever written by anyone—utterly incomparable in its intensity—and the closing chorus one of the most moving ever written. So perhaps my favourite piece is the St Matthew Passion with a few cuts in the middle?

Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo
Benvenuto Busoni
(what a cool name!),
conductor, editor, teacher, writer
It's fascinating how some composers can put in so much of their character and yet retain the essence of Bach's music. I am, of course, speaking of Busoni's, Rachmaninoff's and Liszt's, and also everyone else in the compilation of the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. Which is your favourite Bach transcriber or transcription?

In this respect, the “lifetime achievement” award certainly goes to Busoni, both for quantity and quality. He had an almost uncanny affinity with Bach, even if the sound world of his transcriptions might have been largely unrecognisable to old Bach himself. My favourite Busoni transcriptions are the Chaconne, and two of the Chorale Preludes: “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” and “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ”. I played the former Prelude in one of my concerts in Singapore a couple of years ago, and I’ll play the latter on Saturday, but as a prelude to Liszt’s “Weinen, klagen” Variations.

I realised a while ago that “Ich ruf zu Dir” fits like a glove with the Liszt, which is itself far more of an original work than a transcription. After the increasingly frenzied anguish in the main part of the piece has been exhausted, Liszt closes with a profoundly moving consolatory chorale, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” “Whatever God does is for the best”. He was reflecting on the death of his children, Daniel and Blandine. It finally brings the piece back into the world of the chorale prelude—or back to Bach, as it were.
Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach,
played and recorded on
Moog Synthesizers

There have been a few, umm, interesting versions of Bach around, including Jacques Loussier's jazz trio arrangements from 1959 and Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach of 1968. Not to mention, the (not so) recent ones where electric guitars play Bachian riffs in rock songs.. Have there been any which get you irritated or annoyed?

I’m annoyed by almost anything played on an electric guitar….

Finally, to end off our short interview, could you list and describe, in 50 words each, 3 things in western culture that would not have been possible if Bach had never existed?

1. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is imbued with Bach, albeit a Wagnerian Bach, and is one of the most magnificent hymns to German culture not actually written by Bach himself.

2. Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, which I’ve always found touchingly nostalgic, maybe even because I’ve never really understood what the words were supposed to be telling me.

3. Boring first-year music students with Riemenschneider’s astonishingly dull collection of Bach Chorales, set down as if on a supermarket conveyor belt one after the other, utterly shorn of context or meaning. I’ve often wondered how many students decided after this to drop music in favour of a career manning a checkout.

I hope you enjoy the concert!


Come face to face with Kenneth Hamilton as he traces the connections Back to Bach! This recital happens on 19 April 2014 at the Esplanade Recital Studio at 1930 hrs, and is sponsored by the Steinway Gallery Singapore and the University of Cardiff.

Meanwhile, here's the Wagner-Liszt Tannhäuser Overture played by him:

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

NAFA Project Strings - A Review

An edited version of this article appeared in The Straits Times on 2 April 2014 with the heading 'Kam Ning Plays with Impeccable Clarity'.

NAFA Project Strings, Kam Ning, violin, and Foo Say Ming, director/violin
Esplanade Recital Studio/Monday

Making its debut at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Monday evening was Project Strings, the chamber ensemble of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Although it was the brainchild of its director, violinist-conductor Foo Say Ming, the entire concert was a student-led initiative which gave the students a rare opportunity to organise a full-scale concert on their own.

 Opening the concert was a world premierè of cultural-medallion winner Kam Kee Yong’s Malaysian Suite for String Orchestra, reworked in 2010 from an award-winning string quartet score composed in 1963. Kam is not only a composer and violinist, but also a renowned painter; this is evident in his compositions, which when brought to life by Project Strings, conjured up colourful scenes of life in a Malay village. The three-movement suite was laden with middle-eastern-inspired melodies, the jubilant outer movements sandwiching a serenade, which instead of a tranquil night scene, was more reminiscent of an amorous public declaration of love.

It seemed like a family business for a moment when Kam’s daughter, Kam Ning, took to the stage to perform the first Violin Concerto in D Minor by Mendelssohn, predecessor of the more famous one in E minor and rediscovered only in the last century by her mentor Yehudi Menuhin. Directing the ensemble and playing from memory, the younger Kam played with impeccable clarity and a focused sound, characterised by wit and humour. Brimming with infectious energy which also reflected in the ensemble's playing, they offered a fresh and highly imaginative perspective to the composition which would otherwise have looked like an étude on paper. The almost-full recital studio clapped, cheered and wolf-whistled: they wanted more - and were rewarded with her signature encore piece, her own jazzy arrangement of John Newton's Amazing Grace, complete with foot-stomping, multiple stops (playing more than two notes at once), and every other trick in the book of virtuoso violin playing.

Ending off was Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, which the concert is named after. Instead of the usual frenzied, volatile and powerfully driven readings which most ensembles offer, Foo opted for more laid-back tempos, choosing instead to bring out the timbres and layers of the different instruments and yielded a full-bodied tone from the ensemble. The textures were distinct and this worked for the first movement, but perhaps due to the sheer size of the ensemble, the later movements sounded a little wearying and at times draggy. Although evidently tired, the ensemble pressed on with gusto towards the joyful fugue finale. With such a luscious sound, one hopes that these young musicians would return soon: perhaps next time with Tchaikovsky's Serenade?

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Piano and Bassoon Recital - A Review

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 23 January 2014 with the title 'Bassoon and Piano in Passion Play'.

Aw Yong Tian, bassoon; Chenna Lu, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio

Although there have been a growing number of woodwind musicians in Singapore, solo recitals are still rare, and bassoon recitals are few and far between. Understandably so too, for it is difficult to programme an evening of bassoon works and keep the audience engaged for the entire duration.  Thus, Aw Yong Tian and Chenna Lu took the opportunity to organise a combined recital featuring both the bassoon and piano.

It seemed only fitting for two graduates from the Munich University of Performing Arts and Theatre to play music in the Germanic tradition, and repertoire for the recital consisted mostly of works from the early to mid-nineteenth century. 

The first movement of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, arguably the most studied piece in bassoon repertoire, proved a delightfully playful opening. Selecting a rather fast tempo, Aw Yong effortlessly handles the passagework with clarity, maintaining the light texture and crispness of rhythm and articulation.  

Aw Yong was then joined by Zhang Jinmin, principal bassoonist of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, in J. B. Wanhal’s Concerto for Two Bassoons, more than ably accompanied by Lu. It was a pity that the two bassoons only fully warmed up to each other towards the end in the cadenza. Later, however, both bassoons jested and sang, showing off the lyrical and comical characters in three arias from Rossini’s opera, the Barber of Seville.

In between the duets, Lu took the spotlight with a dramatic rendition of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. The outer movements were powerful, but an underlying sense of impatience and agitation pervaded her playing; this was especially evident in the middle slow movement. Fearless and formidable, Lu also thundered through Mendelssohn’s Op. 28 Phantasie and Kapustin’s jazzy First Etude from the Op. 40 set.

From the tender beginning to the fast and fiery finale of Schumann’s three Fantasy Pieces, Lu seemed to play her best when she played together with Aw Yong, the duo giving an impassioned rendition.  As the applause died down, the audience was rewarded with an arrangement of Piazzolla’s Oblivion for two bassoons and piano. Although somewhat hurried, it provided a pleasant ending to a well-thought out programme.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Four Sides to a Concert - Critics take on Fou Ts'ong's Mozart

It all started out with an email from the PianoManiac sometime last October, suggesting that "all of us write a review of the Mozart Concerto played by Fou Ts'ong, and see if we agree or differ," after finding out that all four of us were attending the performance. We were to submit our reviews within three days of the performance, and those would get published on his blog and mine.

the 4 of us before the concert
So on the 11th of January 2014, four music critics witnessed Chinese pianist and soon-to-be-octogenarian Fou Ts'ong perform Mozart's Piano Concerto in A Major, K488, and here are the views on his performance:

Chang Tou Liang is a doctor by profession, the classical music reviewer of The Straits Times, and the founder-editor of Pianomania (see link above). This is an excerpt from the full review found here.

Three landmarks or milestones were celebrated in this evening’s concert. The obvious one was the 150th birth anniversary of German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) around which a mini festival was built. Another was the coming 80th birthday of Fou Ts’ong, the first Chinese and Asian pianist to make a mark in the West, by winning 3rd Prize in the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1955. Sporting a full head of jet black hair, he did not look like an octogenarian. His gait was slower than before but maintained a dignity which always distinguished this patrician among pianists. His playing in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in A major (K.488) seemed to roll back the years. He did not project a big sound, but that was not necessary for Mozart in any case. His pearly tone and limpid runs in the faster outer movements, free of arthritic afflictions, were proof that all his faculties were gloriously intact. The Adagio slow movement brought out the most beautiful legato playing, the tragic lilting air being the work’s emotional high point, before fluently letting rip in the exciting finale. The audience yearned for an encore, but sadly there was none. However they could console themselves for having heard the finest of the three Esplanade appearances by Fou playing Mozart concertos. He seemed to find a second wind in the Indian summer of an illustrious career.

Kevin Tan is a well-known constitutional lawyer, historian, hi-fi aficionado and musicophile, former President of the Singapore Heritage Society, and former classical critic of the BigO magazine.

As the lights dimmed, out walked a man too young to be Fou Ts’ong. He proceeded to announce the impending performance by Fou Ts’ong and urge the audience to join the SSO in wishing Fou Ts’ong a Happy 80th Birthday. Did a quick check – Fou was born on the 10th of March in Shanghai – so he was two months shy of his ninth decade. From a distance, the lanky Fou Ts’ong did not look 80, but his gait and stooped shoulders gave him away. Hair slicked back and dressed in a black silk Chinese top, Fou made his way slowly to the piano, sat down and nodded his readiness to the conductor Lan Shui.

The orchestral introduction was taken slowly, the first indication that this was not to be a firecracker performance. Fou’s entry was muted and strangely lethargic and while he clearly had the measure of the music, he was not able to get all his cylinders firing. Age had clearly caught up with the old magician. The legendary touch and sound were still there, but in flashes rather than in swathes. Every so often, one heard the Fou Ts’ong of old – urbane, cultured, manicured, slightly mischievous, and just-so – but not enough of it.

The sublime second movement was little better, but far more acceptable, as Fou coaxed a wide range of sounds and shades from the piano. Alas, the patchiness of the first movement persisted and at points, the pace began to sag and teetered on the brink of somnolence. Fou appeared to be having some problem with his right hand as his otherwise pristine runs would mysteriously slosh about in muddiness from time to time. It did not help that the orchestra was often too loud and threaten to drown Fou out. But in the third movement, Fou was 40 again. It was as if the first movements were little more than warm-up sessions for this finale which he took at breath-taking pace. I almost dared not breath, for fear that he could not sustain the tempo, but Fou had clearly found his momentum and he sailed – dare I say ‘effortlessly’ – through to the end in a triumph of prestidigitation. It was the only movement where both pianist and orchestra seemed to be ad idem, and as the last notes of the orchestra died away, the audience roared lustily. Maybe Sir Thomas Beecham was right after all, so long as you start together and end together, the public will think it a good performance.

 Phan Ming Yen is a self-professed retired music critic, a lecturer at Republic Polytechnic where he is pursuing a doctoral thesis in writing (hence the poetry). In his previous lives, he was music critic for The Straits Times, Editor of The Arts Magazine, and Programme Director of The Arts House. He is the author of the book of short stories “That Night On The Beach”. His review is divided into two parts, a pReview written before the performance as a prediction, and a reView in a poem. 

The original pReview:

 "In a performance which could otherwise have been described as subdued, Fou eschewed the rhythmic idiosyncracies and dynamic excesses which sometimes marred his earlier recordings and exchanged it for subtle shifts in tonal nuances, tautly shaped phrasing and well-controlled tempi. 50 years earlier, Fou may (and occasion did) have delivered a Mozart reminiscent of the parody portrayed in the film Amadeus but now, it was Mozart viewed through the lens of emotion recollected in tranquility as it were."

and the reView (after Xu Zhimou's Saying Goodbye to Cambridge):

Listening to Fou Ts'ong with Mozart

Like a scholar from the past he leaves,
Just like the gentleman he is when he earlier walked on;
he smiles softly to the audience
Or perhaps to the memory of a Western sky.

Those soft hued notes that floated up from the keyboard
Are like young brides in the setting sun;
The lightness of their bodies
Keeps echoing in my heart.

The Adagio that is like a siciliana
moves leisurely as if in reverie;
I am glad for such a pastoral mood,
a gentle flow within the river of Time

That modulation within those shades of notes
Holds not clear hope, but a broken dream
Crumpled within a body of sound,
Where forgotten quavers settle.

To search for that dream? He runs with the Allegro Assai,
Upwards with scales and broken octaves,
That burst from the stardom of his youth,
a desperate clutch for the past

Yet, now he cannot play too fast,
perhaps peace is indeed his farewell music;
fortes are now silent for him,
For Mozart this evening is mezzo forte, mezzo piano

Quietly he leaves,
Just as quietly as he came;
Gently with a nod of his head,
He does not give away a single encore.

Finally, my own review of the performance, contrasted a review of Patsy Toh's recital at NAFA on 6th of January 2014:

They say that opposites attract, and that cannot be more true in the case of husband-and-wife pianists Fou Ts'ong and Patsy Toh's playing styles. The elderly couple was here in Singapore to perform and teach; Toh played a recital of Schubert and Chopin at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' Lee Foundation Theatre last Monday evening, while last night Fou was accompanied by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall in a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto in A Major, K488.

Toh walked slowly onstage, her gait slightly uneven, and with some difficulty took a bow before readying herself. Her playing was poetic and lyrical, managing to make the showpieces sound non-virtuosic. The technique was obviously beneath her, as she glided through the difficult passages in Chopin's Barcarolle and Fourth Scherzo with ease, delicately navigating through them without drawing any attention to the virtuosic writing. Instead, she drew attention to the countermelodies, gently coaxing them out while keeping the melody and accompaniment beneath. She was a picture of elegance and eloquence as she sat playing at the piano, still, unmoving, without any dramatic antics, letting her music express itself.

If Fou Ts'ong was a legend, his glory days were definitely behind him, his playing merely a shadow of better years past. Fou picked a slow tempo for the first movement and plodded along slowly with uneven notes, playing with what can only be described as fragile beauty. The orchestra, too, also sounded uninspired, letting him down with their nonchalant attitude. Perhaps it would have been better for an octet or chamber group to accompany him instead, as the orchestra was often much too loud when contrasted with his brittle and small sound.

The second movement was even slower and almost spiritual; in Fou's reverie-like state and use of rubato, he seemed to be conveying some kind of sadness in regret or nostalgia. Unlike his wife, his gestures were extravagant, shaking his head and lifting his arms high as he played. The finale that followed was so surprisingly fast that one wondered if he could sustain the energy and tempo until the end. He kept up till the end, even speeding up. At the end if it all, the audience cheered and clapped, possibly out of relief, or happy to have watched the living legend perform in what may be one of his final performances.


In all, it was a most interesting and amusing exercise, with majority (3 out of 4) suggesting that Fou Ts'ong performed better in the years past. Till next time!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Usher in the New Year in style!

It's back yet again, arguably the classiest way to celebrate the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 - with The Philharmonic Orchestra in their New Year's Eve Gala Concert. The repertoire this year includes some Strauss (Johann, not Richard), Sibelius' Valse Triste, Delibes' Flower Duet, a 'Symphony for Fun' by Don Gillis, and even a Peanut Vendor Song!

Ending off the concert as the clock strikes midnight is the triumphant final section of Respighi's The Pines of Rome, The Appian Way. 

So come and waltz your way into 2014 with Lim Yau, Andrew Mowatt, and The Philharmonic Orchestra!

Tickets at $38, a pair of tickets at $70. Concessions available. Get your tickets from Sistic now!

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Word Voices featuring Tan Twan Eng - An Advertisment

“Who can look back and truly say all his memories are happy ones? To have memories, happy or sorrowful, is a blessing, for it shows we have lived our lives without reservation.”

Reading The Garden of Evening Mists around this time last year while overseas filled me with a sense of longing and heimweh. Tan is a master storyteller, drawing the reader into his world with lush evocative descriptions. He blurs the lines between black and white, right and wrong, and at the end of the book, even if you feel that the characters made some wrong choices, you cannot say that anything otherwise would have been better.

His writing is sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes philosophical, and always captivating. Join him  at The Arts House tomorrow evening (11 Dec 2013) at 7.30pm as he talks about his upcoming novel among other things!

Admission is free.