Monday, 20 November 2017


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra et al
Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (18 November 2017)

A very special concert was held at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Johann Strauss the Younger’s most famous waltz On The Beautiful Blue Danube, which was composed in 1867. The concert conducted by eminent Hungarian maestro Gabor Takacs-Nagy (this year’s Ong Teng Cheong Visiting Professor of Music) featured the strings of the YST Conservatory augmented by 12 string players from four European musical academies (Hannover, Graz, Budapest and Bucharest) representing some nations through which the mighty Danube flows. The ambassadors of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania were all present at this concert, which had been fully subscribed just a few days after its announcement.

How does one build a programme around the Blue Danube Waltz? Takacs-Nagy wisely chose string works by composers from the represented nations, music by Dvorak (Bohemia), Enesco (Romania) and Bartok (Hungary) as starters and main course before the Viennese dessert. He spoke before each piece, providing lots of personal insight in a totally informal and avuncular manner, which the audience appreciated.

Two movements from Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings made for a delightful opening. As one might expect, the string sound was sumptuous, and one could really feel the musical sunshine described by the conductor radiating from the finale. If Dvorak sounded light, two movements from Georges Enesco’s Octet provided more texture and contrapuntal fibre to the entrée. In this version for string orchestra, a greater volume of sound was generated, beautifully contrasted by the fine solos played by concertmaster Oszkar Varga from the Liszt Academy.

Arguably the best performances came in the 2nd and 3rd movements of Bartok’s Divertimento. The tremendous tension built up in the slow movement was palpable, with each jerky dotted rhythm phrase multiplied manifold to represent the tragedy and pain that was to befall Bartok’s homeland during Second World War. This world weariness gave out to a sense of joy in the rapturous finale, the vigorous rhythms of which were literally danced out by Takacs-Nagy on the podium. Seldom has one experienced such an unfettered show of exuberance among the players and conductor.   

Woodwinds, brass, percussion and harp joined in for the Blue Danube Waltz, for which Takacs-Nagy shared more of his childhood memories living in Budapest just a few minutes from the river. He could smell the river, and certainly he has the feel of music’s waves of waltz rhythm. It took some warming up from the brass in the introductory opening but before long, the lilting journey was underway. The secret of playing waltzes is not in keeping strict rhythm throughout but allowing the three-quarter time to heave and breathe through its course. And that was what the audience got, a reading of true vitality and rare feeling. The joy expressed by all the musicians on stage was clear to see, hear and feel.

As an encore, the orchestra offered Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5 (from the only German among the composers), and Takacs-Nagy humbly asked for permission to play the Blue Danube once more. Needless to say, that was most welcome, and it was double the pleasure this time around. 

SONG OF DESTINY. BRAHMS SYMPHONIES / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (17 November 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 November 2017 with the title "A night when darkness passed into light".

This was the programme that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Shui Lan was to play in its first concert in Kuala Lumpur's Dewan Filharmonik Petronas after a hiatus of 17 years. It appropriately began with the world premiere of Meditation, a very short work by the prodigious 19-year-old pianist-composer Tengku Irfan, once hailed in these pages as the Malaysian Mozart.

Originally a piano piece, its orchestration relived the lush atonality of Second Viennese School composer Alban Berg. Before any discernible development could even take place, it ended as quietly as it began. That served as a teaser for two choral works by Johannes Brahms, Gesang der Parzen (Song Of The Fates) and Schicksalslied (Song Of Destiny), performed by a combined choir comprising the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and Choir of the Transylvanian State Philharmonic, Cluj-Napoca.

Those familiar with A German Requiem will readily recognise Brahms' musical idiom, but the words here do not offer succour, instead cynicism and bitterness in the writings of Goethe and Holderlin respectively. Heavenly hosts conspire against mortals, and the gods are indifferent to earthly matters. Its anti-theist message was as clear as the diction and enunciation of the 110-strong mass of voices.

While Gesang der Parzen coloured its eternal struggle and despair in tragic and sombre tones, Schicksalslied did offer a mere measure of solace in its C major close. These contrasts were keenly brought out by the choir, now under the wing of new choral director Eudenice Palaruan, who succeeded Lim Yau's illustrious over 30-year-long tenure earlier this year. The accompanying orchestra played with discreetness and transparency throughout.

After the spare and grim choral works of the first half, Brahms' Second Symphony played after the interval shone like many rays of sunshine. This was the concluding chapter of the orchestra's Brahms symphony cycle under Shui, and in many ways its most optimistic.

Unlike his view of Beethoven symphonies which tended to be on the brisk side, Shui adopted more expansive tempos for this Brahms symphony. One might even use the description of leisurely, but it never felt draggy or bogged down unlike the portentous reading by veteran Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky of several years ago.

Lilting strings were a pleasure in the 1st movement's second theme, the one that recalled Brahms' universally sung Wiegenlied (Cradle Song). Textures were also kept on the light side, and even the serious slow movement could afford a smile in its longeurs. Principal French horn Han Chang Chou's solos were immaculately phrased, and woodwinds stood out in the chirpy narrative of the third movement.

If one longed for a more pressing approach, that eventually came in the finale, which was taken in one slick lick.  If pure joy could be expressed, it could not have been better captured, as the concert  passed from darkness to light. 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, November 2017)

Singapore Chinese Orchestra / YEH TSUNG
SCO / ****1/2

The British composer-pedagogue Eric Watson is the present Composer-in-Residence of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. This unusual accolade was a culmination of sorts after winning First Prize in the First Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition (2006) with his tone poem Tapestry - Time Dances, a sympathetic fusion of Western compositional technique and Chinese instrumentation with Nanyang characteristics.

His sound world is eclectic with myriad Asian influences and a popular slant without sounding derivative, which could not have been conceived by any Westerner not living in the Far East. Six works are represented in this 65-minute capsule profile, opening with Mahjong Kakis, a jazzy and blues-inflected orchestral scherzo. Tapestry – Time Dances and An Independent Note share a similar aesthete, the latter a collection of Lee Kuan Yew quotes recited with stentorian vigour by veteran actor Lim Kay Tong.

Dialogue for tabla and Chinese orchestra is a concerto with improvisation, featuring young tabla virtuoso Govin Tan doing the honours. The Ceilidh and Songs Of The North are concerto for orchestra and concerto grosso respectively, using songs from the British isles to stunning effect. The latter sees Celtic fiddle, English concertina, dizi and pipa sharing the stage as solo instruments. Such a heady combination could only come from Singapore, and performed with an irrepressible zest from the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.  

Thursday, 9 November 2017


Presented by Aureus Great Artists Series
The Aureus Salon
Wednesday (8 November 2017)

In a candid sneak peek of great things to come, Aureus Academy presented its first musical salon at the 19th floor Scotts Road penthouse suite of Aureus CEO Lawrence Holmefjord-Sarabi in the company of young Georgian pianist Luka Okros.

Luka Okrostsvaridze was the latest 1st prize winner of the Hong Kong International Piano Competition, having garnered that enviable accolade in 2016. Supported by the Chopin Society of Hong Kong as part of a multi-city Asian tour, Luka’s Singapore debut was an unqualified triumph, as he charmed his audience with a full-length recital that combined requisite virtuosity and utmost musicality.

His programme was an interesting and varied one, opening with two Bach Preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book One, Nos.1&2) and Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. He spoke briefly before each piece, but mostly let his playing do the talking. The contrasts between Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major (Op.90 No.3) and Rachmaninov’s Étude-tableau (Op.39 No.6) or “Little Red Riding Hood” could not have been starker, flowing lyricism followed by a violent and nervous energy. The first half closed with the impressive coruscations of Prokofiev’s Third Sonata.

One seldom gets to hear Rachmaninov’s Six Moments Musicaux (Op.16) complete, but this was the rarest of opportunities, which Luka (and the audience) lapped up with great relish. His sense of colour, encompassing the Russian’s dark brooding style and rapturous Romantic lashings made this a memorable outing. The Rach connection continued in Liszt’s familiar Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, made more special because Luka played Rachmaninov’s own cadenza which is wonderfully decadent with its outlandish harmonies.

The hand-crossing that takes place
in Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody.

The applause and bravos were loud and prolonged, and Luka’s encores included a short Georgian-flavoured improvisation of his own and the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor.

The Aureus Great Artist Series will present Luka Okros in a Victoria Concert Hall recital in 2018, where he will stand proud alongside names like Melvyn Tan, Boris Berezovsky, Valentina Lisitsa and Freddy Kempf.     

This young lady seems to exclaim,
"I've never heard anything so exquisite before!"
Luka and his wife Anna (2nd from right)
with their new adoring friends.
Looks like everybody had a great time.
With the humans going or gone,
Oscar the ragdoll settles to his rightful position,
under the New York Steinway.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, November 2017)

Kremer. Dirvanauskaite.Trifonov
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6979 / *****

The album's title Preghiera (Prayer) refers to a short piece for violin and piano by Fritz Kreisler, a reworking of the melodious themes found in the slow movement of his close friend and musical collaborator Sergei Rachmaninov's popular Second Piano Concerto. Like much of the Russian's music, it is melancholic but the underlying prettiness shines through. It serves as a prelude to the his two piano trios, brooding early works which are performed in reverse chronological order.

The much longer Piano Trio No.2 in D minor (Op.9), just under 50 minutes in playing time, was composed in memory of his mentor Tchaikovsky who died in 1893. It is modelled almost exactly after Tchaikovsky's own Piano Trio in A minor, dedicated to the late Nicholas Rubinstein. Even the slow movement is a set of variations, but based on the main theme from Rachmaninov's tone poem The Rock. Tchaikovsky's influence also heavily pervades the single-movement Piano Trio in G minor, which is reminiscent of a tragic romance. 

This disc celebrates the 70th birthday of Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, who retains his characteristic wiry and acerbic tone, but tempers it with no little tenderness. He is partnered by younger but no less skilled partners, Lithuanian cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite and Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov. A winner from start to finish.

Monday, 6 November 2017

ERIC WATSON'S WORLD OF CHINESE MUSIC / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium
Friday (3 November 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 November 2017 with the title "Enjoyable blend of East meets West".

The irony in the concert's title was deliberate. After all, what does a British composer have to do with Chinese music? In the case of Eric Watson, plenty. Singapore Chinese Orchestra's present Composer-in-Residence has lived in Singapore since 1991, and had been interested in Asian music and culture long before that. In 2006, he was awarded First Prize in the First Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition, and his works and arrangements have since featured regularly in SCO concerts here and overseas.

This enjoyable 2-hour concert conducted by SCO Music Director Yeh Tsung showcased seven works of Watson's, including the world premiere of The Nanyang Gate, a concerto for sanxian inspired by nanyin music and a trip to Xiamen. The Fujian port city had historically been China's portal to Nanyang, where the Chinese diaspora to the Southeast Asia began. The music opened calmly, gradually building to a heightened sense of anticipation and exhilaration in Huang Gui Fang's virtuosic display on the 3-stringed plucked instrument.

Transitions between quiet meditation and purple passion were interesting, culminating in an unaccompanied showy and coruscating cadenza. The other concertante work was Dialogue (2007) for tabla and orchestra. Jatinder Singh Bedi provided an incessant conversation, much that was improvised, with the ensemble that was gripping for its entire duration. In both works, Watson did not slavishly imitate Chinese or Indian music, but assimilated elements of their styles in an original way.

Watson's experience in musical theatre and popular music accounted for Sea – Source Of Life, which opened the concert. Written for the 2007 National Day Parade, its easy and feel-good demeanour found a mirror in Mahjong Kakis (also 2007), which employed jazzy and blues idioms to playful effect. The latter has become one of his most exportable works.

On a more serious note, his Tapestry – Time Dances, which won his 2006 grand prix, played on the age-old form of variations, with a simple “ticking” theme subjected through myriad transformations. The prerequisite of Nanyang inspiration for its composition was cleverly handled, especially in sinuous passages for dizis and some rhythmic drumming. Throw in a slow section recalling the pastoral string strains of his compatriot Vaughan Williams, its appeal may be seen as universal.

From a similar fabric was An Independent Note (2015) conceived, a musical portrait of Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew using a selection of his quotes. Lee’s stentorian voice came alive via veteran thespian Lim Kay Tong, who projected a resolute and defiant spirit rather than providing mere vocal mimicry.

Arguably Watson's most popular work is The Ceilidh, taken from a Gaelic word meaning concert or gathering. Using highland melodies which are largely pentatonic, the line between Chinese music and that of the British Isles became blurred. That was until the glorious emergence of O Waly Waly (The River Is Wide), the big tune which swept all and sundry to a raucous and joyous end.   

Photographs by the kind courtesy of
Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

PURGATORY / L'arietta / Review

Namiko Chan Takahashi's portrait of
Reuben Lai as The Old Man
formed the cover of this production

54 Waterloo Street
Tuesday (31 October 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 November 2017 with the title "Creepy enough for Halloween".

Halloween night was an apt occasion to witness local opera company L'arietta's production of Gordon Crosse's one-act opera Purgatory (1966), a musical setting to W.B.Yeats' disturbing play of the same title from 1938. Unlike last year's macabre barrel of laughs that was Operacalypse Now!, Purgatory was deadly serious, but made topical by director Eleanor Tan's transforming an Irish saga of familial decline and degeneration into a Peranakan one. 

The hour-long opera benefitted from the “immersive experience” offered to its audience, by means of acting, dance and portraiture in addition to purely musical values. Before the actual opera began, listeners were ushered into a Straits Chinese decorated ante-room where the back-story was played out. Well-heeled Nonya girl has an affair with a lowly commoner, but dies after giving birth to a son, who grows up to become the troubled Old Man in the opera. 

Singaporean tenor Reuben Lai must have gained a headful of white hair singing the Old Man, for this was the most exacting and convincing portrays of descent into psychosis even winessed on the local operatic stage. Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's cult horror movie The Shining readily comes to mind.

Opposite him, Malaysian tenor Peter Ong was the blase and not-so-innocent Boy, whose Oedipal antagonism with his father was clearly palpable. This uneasy chemistry between both stage veterans was excellent. The only female presence was provided by a 6-member women's chorus, representing the Old Man's dead mother and spirits of the dead who observed, reacted and commented on goings-on like some spectral Greek chorus.

Crosse's music was tonal but dissonant, much in the manner of Benjamin Britten. The chamber orchestra led by Aloysius Foong comprised cello, flute, keyboards and percussion, the latter providing ominous hoof-beats which spelt doom besides ratcheting up the ante to heart-stopping highs.

The set design by Grace Lin was darkly evocative, dominated by an arc of wooden slats from a burnt-down house under the shade of a haunted banyan tree, which revealed a hung skeleton during the latter stages. Only the taped Balinese music that accompanied random village scenes before the opera came across as misplaced.

It is said that the sins of the father are visited upon the children, and it was the premise of the Old Man (who as a 16-year-old had killed his own father) to stop that endless cycle of death and free his mother's soul from purgatory. The purging of his emotions and downward spiral, so vividly played by Lai, would lead to another death in his hand, but could two wrongs ever make a right?

Short as this opera was, there was no shortage of dramatic tension and one was led on a noose to its bitter denouement. This was so effective that one individual in the front row was seen to make convulsive stabbing motions all through to the end. If that does not give one the Halloween creeps, nothing else will.  

Purgatory plays till Sunday 
at 54 Waterloo Street. 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, November 2017)

BIS 2238 / *****

Of the many young Chinese pianists professing their art in today's concert halls, Zhang Haochen, now 27, is the most thoughtful of keyboard virtuosos. As ironic as that sounds, he eschews the outlandish showiness of Lang Lang, and the glamour and glitz of Yundi or Yuja Wang. 

His new recital album showcases that most valued of qualities: genuine musicality allied with the innate ability of saying what one means. Forget the fact that he can rip through Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrushka with seemingly the greatest of ease, it is his view of Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes From Childhood) that moves. Its 13 movements of utmost simplicity are taken at face value and the music is allowed to speak for itself.

His concession to virtuosity takes place in Liszt's Ballade No.2, which builds to a shattering climax in a less commonly-heard version which replaces left hand scales with chords. In Janacek's Sonata I.X.1905, a young worker's death is remembered in anti-virtuoso terms, in which poetry and poignancy comes to the fore in two concentrated movements. 

The youngest-ever winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition concludes his recital with Brahms' Three Intermezzi Op.117, where song-like qualities and smouldering disquiet come through with an uncommon immediacy. Like holding infinity in the palm of his hand, and eternity in an hour, that is true virtuosity for you. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

DVD Review (The Straits Times, October 2017)

Singapore Chinese Orchestra / YEH TSUNG
SCO DVD 2017 / ***1/2 

This is a live recording of a July 2013 concert held at Esplanade Concert Hall, part of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and its Music Director Yeh Tsung's vision of crossing over to reach a wider audience by performing non-Chinese music on traditional Chinese instruments. The choice of George Gershwin, early American jazz and Afro-American spirituals was a interesting one that worked surprisingly well, contributing to a highly enjoyable event.

The casting of African-American soloists was also inspired. Veteran pianist Leon Bates gave a brash, no-holds-barred account of Rhapsody in Blue and Fascinatin' Rhythm (solo, as an encore) including his own showy extemporisations. He also shined in I Got Rhythm Variations, complete with its curious Chinoiserie variation. 

Stealing the show was soprano Kimberly Eileen Jones in a medley of American spirituals, and she was joined by tenor Lawrence Mitchell-Matthews and choir in a suite of vocal highlights from Porgy and Bess which rocked the house.

It was thus unfortunate that the visual recording was not up to high definition standards, exacerbated by the constant flitting from one viewpoint to another without much thought or conception. Here the video producers have much to learn from top European and American houses. What could have been a concert spectacular was lost, and this should have been released as a purely audio CD recording instead. 

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

CELLISSO / 10 Cellists of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

10 Cellists of the 
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (22 October 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 24 October 2017 with the title "Cellists make wonderful music together".

Listeners would be familiar with the 12 Cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker or London Cellos, which brings together cellists from the London orchestras. Now say hello to CelliSSO, Singapore Symphony Orchestra's answer to those wonderful groups. Led by Principal Ng Pei-Sian, its debut concert showcased only 20th century works but was greeted by a full-house at Victoria Concert Hall.

Not all works featured all ten members of the cello section playing together. The concert began with Trevor Wilson's Five Perambulations played by a quartet formed by Ng Pei-Sian, Yu Jing, Guo Hao and Peter Wilson. Its movements centred on casual strolls in five different places, each imbued with the distinctive character of each locale.

London relived the pre-war world of Eric Coates. New Orleans had a jazzy vibe, Venice delighted in a gondolier's barcarolle, while the flamenco beat lit up Andalusia. Cellist Wilson luxuriated in the solos in his father's work, which closed with Slavonic flavours of Prague, including a short quote from Dvorak's Cello Concerto.   

Perambulation turned into tintinnabulation in the Estonian Arvö Part's Fratres, where Yu, Guo and Wilson were joined by Wang Yan and SSO Associate Conductor Jason Lai (making a cameo), who provided the deep G bass note in this meditative work of mystical triads. Bell-like sonorities, punctuated by percussive knocks on the cello's wood, opened with ethereal stillness, then widening into a plangent crescendo before receding to nothingness.

The first half closed with Australian Carl Vine's Inner World, with just Ng accompanied by a taped recording. This solo tour de force stretched every facet of his cello technique, with psychedelic taped effects that ranged from celestial glissandi to grinding punk rock beats. Bathed under an otherworldly blue and green light, Ng's free-wheeling show garnered loud applause and cheers.

Sicilian Giovanni Sollima's Violoncelles, Vibrez! for two cellos was last heard when Ng partnered Yo-Yo Ma in last year's Silk Road Ensemble concert with SSO. In this evening's version accompanied by six cellos, the soloists were also the ensemble's youngest, Wang Zihao and Wu Dai Dai. Far from being overawed, the duo shined in the music's languid opening before racing into breakneck speeds for a photo finish.

The programme was completed with movements from two Bachianas Brasileiras by the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, who was a cellist himself. Bachiana No.1 saw all ten cellists appear for the first time, with Chan Wei Shing, Song Woon Teng and Zhao Yu Er joining the throng for a gorgeous, cushioned sound in its first two movements.

Soprano Jeong Ae Ree, with her
lucky husband Chan Wei Shing playing behind her.

Far more famous is Bachiana No.5 with its haunting mostly-wordless Aria sung by Korean soprano Jeong Ae Ree, who is also cellist Chan's wife. Garbed in a low-cut jade-coloured gown, she oozed sensuality and later letting loose in the quickfire Dança to close. The ten cellists signed off with an encore, Danny Elfman's The Simpsons Theme, with a promise of more exciting fare in concerts to come.