Thursday, 27 October 2016


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (25 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 October 2016 

It is hard to believe that Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan has just turned 60. The Peter Pan of the piano still sports a boyish smile, and carries an air of giddy excitement when he is near a keyboard, as if preparing for a busy show-and-tell session. His long flailing arms are a given as he steadies himself to perform.

This concert followed closely his London Wigmore Hall recital on 13 October (his actual birthday) and a most recent CD recording Master & Pupil, which showcased the music of Beethoven, Czerny and Liszt. Beginning with Beethoven's Six Bagatelles (Op.126), which may be seen as disparate short fragments that did not become part of a sonata, he brought out a wealth of colour and varied responses.

One might take issue with his generous use of the sustaining pedal, which caused some smudging of textures, but that approach to sound thrusted Beethoven's late period Sonata No.30 in E major (Op.109) unequivocally into the Romantic era. Its first two movements, brief and cogent, carried on from the bagatelles with a show of wistfulness and fist-shaking dramatics respectively.

The gem that was the 3rd movement's Theme And Variations then unfolded beautifully. Its hymn-like theme was projected with crystal-like clarity, and the ensuing variations lovingly tended to. The trills in the last of these led into the theme's reprise, a welcome homecoming with the warmth that greets the best of long-lost friends.

Instead of playing Czerny, British composer Jonathan Dove's Catching Fire, specially written for Tan, received its Singapore premiere. A captivating showpiece of some 15 minutes, slower sections of bell-like sonorities (and occasional birdsong) alternated with fast toccata-like episodes which sparked, sparkled and got increasing incandescent as the work progressed.

Along the way, there were aural references to minimalism, gamelan and even boogie-woogie. It was a long journey that took Tan from his earlier fortepiano days of Mozart and Schubert to Messiaen, John Cage and this work. How he revelled in its terminal velocity and unbridled freedom of expression. Whoever said 21st century music had to be atonal or boring, or both?

The second half was devoted to Franz Liszt's monumental Sonata in B minor, a work of utmost concentration that played on the metamorphosis of four themes. Too often it is mercilessly hammered out or over-intellectualised. Tan's version was neither of these, a highly personal account which took certain liberties in phrasing and pauses for breath.

His fingers and entire musculature was equal to its outsized physical demands. Although there were some missed notes, he was too well into the music to be actually bothered, instead drawing his listeners in for a spellbinding ride. What a journey it was, from stentorian chords, luminescent chorales to stampeding octaves and finally silence. This performance was not about digital virtuosity, but more a lifetime's experience encapsulated within an absorbing half-hour.

Prolonged applause was rewarded with two familiar encores, Liszt's Un Sospiro and Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu. Celebrating pianism does not get as heady as this.  

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

CD REVIEWS (The Straits Times, October 2016)

BACH Piano Works
Decca 478 8449 / *****

The music of Bach has not featured in the recordings of Brazilian piano virtuoso Nelson Freire, until now. That is a surprise given how well attuned he is to the baroque idiom. 

It might be argued that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) never conceived his keyboard music for the modern piano, but if one considers these works to be transcriptions, Freire's view of Bach originals and hyphenated Bach (other composers' arrangements) can rank with the very best.

Four major works – Partita No.4 in D major, Toccata in C minor, English Suite No.3 in G minor and the Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue – are played first on this album, illustrating his utter clarity, immaculate phrasing and total command of counterpoint and infectious dance rhythms. There is a joie de vivre which he makes entirely his own. 

Bach's own transcription of Alessandro Marcello's Adagio (from the Oboe Concerto in D minor) and transcriptions by Busoni (of three Chorale Preludes) and Siloti (Prelude in G minor) are elegant and sound freshly minted. He concludes with the familiar Myra Hess version of Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring, a seamless reading that caps a totally enthralling recital, all 82 minutes of it.

Champs Hill 114 / *****

This anthology is a showcase of the solo violin’s “brave new world”, and it is not as forbidding as one might think. Its title comes from Sofia Gubaidulina's Dancer On A Tightrope (1993) for violin and piano, which opens with a repetition of the A note and builds up into a formidable caprice. Like a stuntman's balancing act on a high wire, it is a hair-raising experience for the listener.

The idea of polyphony on a violin began in the baroque era with Biber and Bach, and modern composers developed further ideas from there. Grazyna Bacewicz's thorny Sonata No.2 (1958) is such a work, and so is Paul Hindemith's fairly accessible Sonata Op.34 No.2 (1924), which culminates in variations on a song that also appears in Mozart's Piano Concerto No.27.

Prokofiev's Sonata Op.115 (1947) is the disc's most approachable piece, a tuneful neoclassical look back on old dances, meant to develop a violin student's technique. Likewise, Alfred Schnittke's Fuga (1953), a student work discovered after his death, is a far cry from his atonal and polystylist style of mature years. 

Polish violinist Bartosz Woroch’s highly impressive technique is ultimately servant to the music's digital and spiritual challenges. He is joined by Malaysian pianist Foo Mei Yi on prepared piano in John Cage Six Melodies (1950), short studies in Zen-like serenity. This is a stunning show of violin virtuosity, comparable with Gidon Kremer's legendary Paganiniana album from the 1980s.  

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

WAGNER'S THE FLYING DUTCHMAN / Richard Wagner Society (Singapore) et al / Review

Richard Wagner Society (Singapore)
& OperaViva Limited / Finger Players
Victoria Theatre
Sunday (23 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 October 2016 with the title "Opera passes with flying colours".

A piece of history was made when Singapore's first-ever complete production of a Wagner opera was staged at Victoria Theatre on Sunday evening. The Flying Dutchman was Richard Wagner's fourth opera and his first hit. Running just over two hours and without too complicated a plot, it made an ideal choice for a maiden attempt.

Despite the lack of experience, this newcomer had much to recommend. First-time opera directors Chong Tze Chien and Glen Goei gave the production a Southeast Asian slant, with the introduction of wayang kulit and shadow puppetry to great advantage. As the Singapore International Festival of Music Orchestra conducted by Darrell Ang played the Overture, the back-story of the Dutchman, doomed to wander the Seven Seas for all eternity, was retold by puppetry alone. In the foreground, the maiden Senta (portrayed by Australian soprano Kathleen Parker) was seen obsessing with a Dutchman puppet dug out from a tok dalang's box. Their later meeting would prove pivotal.

To open, Singaporean tenor Jonathan Tay's Steersman set the right atmosphere for the drama to unfold. Act 1 saw the Dutchman (Ukrainian bass-baritone Oleksandr Pushniak) and ship-captain Daland (German bass Andreas Hörl, as Senta's father) strike a deal for Senta's hand in marriage. Both were well matched, the world-wearied and vulnerable Dutchman a foil for the greedy and manipulative Daland.

The star was Parker's Senta, whose dramatic Ballad in Act 2 showed all the qualities of an ideal Wagner soprano. Opposite her, hunter Erik and some-time love interest (Czech tenor Jakub Pustina) was a weaker presence with his straining at higher tones. Mezzo-soprano Candice de Rozario fulfilled her part of Senta's sidekick Mary well. The men's choir from Schola Cantorum, with just eleven singers, was just too small for the sailors' choruses while the women's choir was not always pitch perfect in the Spinning Chorus. 

The stage design could never match those of Bayreuth or major opera houses, so Wong Chee Wai's sets relied effectively on the use of shadows and silhouettes, with a skeletal ship's hull with steps and runway being the mainstay. A kampong on stilts, spinning wheels and the simulation of waves, projected as shadows under Lim Woan Wen's evocative lighting, were also atmospheric touches.

Max Tan and Yuan Zhiying's costumes vacillated between Western and Asian, so the extravagant outfits of the Dutchman (bright red) and Daland (black and white) appeared like something out of a sci-fi pirate movie. For a production predominantly cloaked in dark hues, the contrasts were still eye-catching enough.

The final scene when Senta abandons the safety of terra firma to unite with the Dutchman, thus providing his redemption, was a poignant one. There was no mention of death, only sacrifice and the course of true love. Ultimately, it was the musical, dramatic values and story-telling that made this production stand out.

There are four more shows on 25, 27, 28 (with an all-local main cast) and 30 October. A brush with Wagner's first outing in Singapore is guaranteed to be a memorable one. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

PORTRAIT OF A COMPOSER / IKAN GIRL / Singapore International Festival of Music / Review

Singapore International Festival of Music
Chamber, The Arts House
Friday (21 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 24 October 2016 with the title "Coherent fusion of Malay and Western music".

Malay musicians have long dominated the popular music scene in Singapore, but have recently made in-roads into Western classical music. The best example is young composer Syafiqah 'Adha Sallehin, the first Malay-Muslim graduate from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, who was the composer-in-residence of the 2nd Singapore International Festival of Music.

This concert was to have featured five new chamber works including two World Premieres but logistical reasons militated against that. It instead had a truncated first half that opened with two solo piano works performed by Matthew Mak. Elegy was a short and sentimental pop-inspired piece, a student work that could have come from a songbook anywhere in the world.

Syafiqah assured that no one died for it to be conceived. More complex was Surviving Love, which was also tonal but featured some dissonances, and a turbulent central section that portrayed the trials and tribulations of her parents' love. Played with feeling by Mak, all's well that ends well, as to be expected.

The first work with an authentically local idiom was Anjakan Jiwa (Movements Of The Soul) performed by an ensemble with Syafiqah on accordion, violinist Mukhriddin Sayfiddinov, flautist Zaidi-Sabtu Ramli, pianist Nabillah Jallal and percussionist Ramu Thiruyanam. With rhythmic ostinatos established on accordion and percussion, this was an lively dance that lilted like the infectious nuevo tangos of Astor Piazzolla, but with a distinctly Malay flavour. 

The group conducted by Marlon Chen performed the concert's main work Ikan Girl. To prepare the audience, a Prelude was crafted involving its main themes and presented as an attractive stand-alone concert piece.

Ikan Girl, a dance-tableaux in multiple short scenes, was adapted from a tale in the ancient Malay poem Syair Bidasari. Here, a beautiful girl's life and soul is intertwined with that of a magical fish. Producer Mohamad Shaifulbahri's conception was the eternal play of good against evil, danced by eight members of the Bhumi Collective. Amin Farid's choreography combined modern dance with Malay and Indian traditions, where grace and violence found an equal footing.

Nur Azillah Abdul Rahman and Nadia Abdul Malek mirrored each other's movements with seamless fluidity, their carefree smiles finding an implacable antagonist in Rupalavanya Subramaniam's icy Queen. Paralleling a similar plot in the Snow White story, the Queen seeks to destroy the girl but is saved by the fish's dynamism and an unlikely lackey danced by Amin.   

This feel-good quotient would have come to nought if not for Syafiqah's vivid music that closely followed the narrative. Lively and high-pitched birdsong evoked a forest waking, while heavy chords and stern harmonies represented the darker forces at work. A sense of agitation filled the air in the abduction scenes while a violin's bittersweet melody played out a happy resolution.

Like what Stravinsky's Petrushka did for Russian music over a century ago, could Syafiqah's Ikan Girl, an experimental but coherent fusion of Malay and Western classical music, be this equally momentous landmark for local music?   

Producer Mohamad Shaifulbahri,
choreographer Amin Farid and
pianist Nabillah Jalal were London-based
artists, when they first collaborated with
composer Syafiqah 'Adha Sallehin.

Friday, 21 October 2016


SIFOM Ensemble
Singapore International Festival of Music
Chamber, The Arts House
Wednesday (19 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 October 2016 with the title "Three strikes and New Music is out".

New music has the perpetual problem of attracting audiences, and presenters are usually mindful of engaging patrons with various outreach efforts to win them over. This concert of new Singaporean music however did nothing of the sort as its presentation was lamentable and unacceptably poor.

There were neither composer biographies nor programme notes provided, just a host who happened to be Paris-based conductor Marlon Chen merely reading out titles of performed pieces. Even the names of performers were omitted. Strike One. Two works on the printed programme by John Sharpley and Koh Cheng Jin were discarded with no reasons given. The compensation was a  complimentary drink offered on the house. Strike Two.

Without fanfare, the 65-minute long concert (originally marketed as 90 minutes) began with Chen Zhangyi's Sandcastles. Violinist Arisa Ikeda and pianist April Foo gave an evocative reading with lyrical lines accompanied by rippling keyboard textures, like waves gently lapping on a serene tropical beach.

Bertram Wee's Love Songs for piano trio was sterner than its title suggested. Its 5 movements were atonal and dissonant, with the idea that the course of true love is never easy. Violinist Rida Sayfiddinov, cellist Dzhama Saidkarimov and pianist Thomas Ang covered a full gamut of 20th century technical devices including harmonics, slides, brusque pizzicatos and heavy chords which cemented his case in no uncertain terms.  

A surreal soundscape was created for Ding Jian Han's Slow Jogging On A Not-So-Silent Night, scored for flute (Jeremy Lim), clarinet (Andrew Constantino), violin, cello and piano (Foo), conducted by Marlon Chen. No actual notes were played in its opening minutes, comprising only the sound of air passing through channels or over strings. This soon cystallised into tones, both short and long-held, which generated a Zen-like calm and mysticism.  

Newly commissioned was Mick Lim's #9 (Sharp Nine), a brief work for pipa (Chua Yew Kok), zhongruan (Loi Eevian), violin, viola (Ho Qian Hui) and cello, which ran a course of plucked notes and pizzicatos. The first work to actually resound with a distinctively Oriental idiom was Ho Chee Kong's Echoes Of Fall for marimba (Kevin Castelo), clarinet, gambus (Loi on ruan) and cello. There were virtuoso roles for each in this enjoyable serenade-like work, which could have come from Central Asia.  

The last and most substantial work was Tan Yuting's Chinatown, a song cycle with texts by Tan Chee Lay featuring talented and expressive soprano Angel Cortez. Its scoring with strings, winds, piano and percussion was lush, and two central fast movements took on the form of rhythmic dances. The subjects involved a culinary paradise and a back-alley barber, but Cortez's Chinese pronunciation was indecipherable, again not helped by the lack of texts or translations. Strike Three and you're out.  

Good music performed by dedicated musicians will always endure, but the cause of new music was not honoured with proper contexts and annotations on this occasion, thus coming off as a wasted opportunity.  

Thursday, 20 October 2016


THOMAS ANG Piano Recital
Singapore International Festival of Music
Gallery II, The Arts House
Tuesday (18 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 October 2016 with the title "Mix of obscure and familiar". 

One important aspect of this year's Singapore International Festival of Music is its focus on some of the nation's most talented young musicians. One who has been tipped to be a future super-virtuoso in the mould of the great French-Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is Thomas Ang, presently studying in London's Royal Academy of Music.

His piano recital was an eclectic mix of familiar and obscure work, the sort that find their way to the Rarities of Piano Music Festival at Schloss vor Husum in Germany. To sell tickets, popular works had to be programmed, so Ang began with Chopin's Third Ballade and three Études from Op.10.

One is not immediately drawn to his prodigious technique, but rather a directness of expression. He does not gild the lily, allowing instead for music speak for itself. The Ballade was crafted with care and good taste, building up to a passionate climax. The studies were tossed off like putty in his fingers, their brilliance on the Bösendorfer grand coming off as over-glaring in the reverberant hall.

The last of these was the Black Key Etude (Op.10 No.5), which was the subject of two further studies by the afore-mentioned Hamelin and Leopold Godowsky. The psychedelic and acid-infused take of the former was tampered by the more traditional contrapuntal fairground that was the latter. Ang swallowed these challenges whole, and followed up with the staple of all virtuosos worth their salt, Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit.

This triptych of tone poems is considered one of the most fearsome in the entire piano literature. The watery realm of Ondine and the bow-legged scampering of Scarbo were brushed off with splashy colour and manic ferocity but it was the slow movement, Le Gibet (The Gallows) which held the most fascination. Ang's take was slower than usual, but the repetitive tolling B flat octave of a distant church bell was totally hypnotic.

The second half opened with Bach's Prelude & Fugue in F sharp minor (Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2), where Ang demonstrated he was equally adept in standard repertoire. His Bach was particularly clear-headed and transparently illuminated.

Rarities took over with two Singapore premieres, of Russian pianist-composer Samuil Feinberg's song The Dream (in Ang's own transcription) and the Second Sonata. Dissonant and piquant harmonies dominated both works, the latter being a thorny single movement of volatile and elusive emotions, heavily influenced by the mystically-inclined Scriabin.

As a palate cleanser, two short movements from Tchaikovsky's Children's Album revealed a more tender side. Rachmaninov's transcription of Tchaikovsky's Lullaby, filled with smouldering melancholy and surprising harmonic twists, and Ang's transcription of Tchaikovsky's song When The Day Dawns completed the highly satisfying two-hour recital.

That last piece and his encore, an original transcription of a Schubert Lied (Lachen und Weinen), showed Ang to be following the footsteps of another legendary Golden Age pianist, the late great Earl Wild.  

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2016)

SG50 Celebration Fund / ****1/2

Here is a neat collection of short pieces for violin and piano from that “golden generation” of Singaporean composers born in the 1980s to early 1990s. The best-known of the five composers featured is Chen Zhangyi, who was the first local composer to be commissioned by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for its overseas concert tours since the 1980s. 

His Sandcastles is dreamy and builds up with waves of sound, while Ground from his single-act opera Window Shopping (for solo piano) ambles like a jazzy improvisation. Phang Kok Jun, a favourite of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's, offered two solos. Hustle Bustle (violin) rustles with a frenetic Paganini-like quality while Wind Chimes (piano) resounds in the tintinnabulation of bells.

Chew Jun An's Lucid Dreamer conjures a sense of isolation, while In The Wind, A Lonely Leaf (violin), a pentatonic tune takes on a life of its own through its discursive 10 minutes. Tan Yuting's still and evocative Water uses recorded sounds and Fantasy Lights captures a dazzling nocturnal view of the skyline from the Singapore Flyer. Wynne Fung's In A Quiet Grey lyrically fantasises on clouds and skies, and ponders on their ephemeral and ever-changing nature. 

National Violin Competition champion Alan Choo possesses the technical know-how to match the thorniest of scores, and his sympathetic partnership with pianist Lin Hengyue scores on all counts. Produced for the SG50 celebrations, this is a souvenir to treasure.

Complete Works for Solo Piano
ABC Classics 481 1181 (2 CDs) / ****1/2

If there were a composer who fathered a distinctive “Australian sound” in music, that would be the Tasmania-born Peter Sculthorpe (1929-1914). His music sympathetically combined 20th century modernism with Asian (particularly Japanese and Balinese) and Australian aboriginal influences. 

His output for piano, dating from 1945 to 2011, reflects that eclecticism and exoticism. In this complete edition, there are first performances of his juvenilia, mostly short tonal pieces from his years of study at the Melbourne Conservatory. A more personal voice is later heard in his Sonatina (1954) and Sonata (1963).

The Japanese influence comes in Night Pieces (1971), Landscape (1971), Koto Music I & II (1973 & 1976), while his stock in trade Aboriginal sound – filled with dreamy resonances, echoes and silences – are best appreciated in Djilile (1986), Nocturnal (1983/89) and Harbour Dreaming (2000). 

His Little Passacaglia (2004) was written memory of victims of the 2002 Bali Bombings, while his final and longest work Riverina (2011) is a summation of all his styles in five movements, including quote from Home Sweet Home and the Chinese song Molihua. Australian pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska has lived with Sculthorpe's music since her early teens and is a most persuasive advocate. The recorded sound is also excellent.   

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

...AND THERE WAS NOTHING / TO Ensemble / Review

TO Ensemble
Singapore International Festival of Music
Play Den, The Arts House
Sunday (16 October 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 October 2016 with the title "Unique brand of crossover jazz".

Trust locally-trained and mostly self-taught composer and jazz-cum-crossover pianist Tze Toh to come up with yet another post-apocalyptic and end-of-days scenario to spice up his latest concert. Having gained a certain notoriety from his Land With No Sun series of concerts, his most recent offering ...And There Was Nothing had as its back drop another science fiction-inspired story involving cosmology, eschatology and artificial intelligence.

To the casual concert-goer, all this might come across as mumbo jumbo, but it was merely an elaborate front for an unusual piano quintet that was in effect a 10-movement modern jazz symphony. For this concert, the ensemble was deliberately pared down to involve only five soloists (including Toh on the piano) and with no accompanying ripieno group.

This spareness worked to its advantage, as the sound of each instrument became more transparent. Christina Zhou's violin contrasted with the lower tones of Benjamin Wong's viola, both playing the traditional classical string parts. The main leitmotifs and themes for the work was cast in G minor, which accomodated Lazar Sebastine's Carnatic violin which had a more ornamental role.       

Teo Boon Chye's saxophone was the leading star, and it was he who opened in Earth, the first chapter. His was a dark and dusky tone, one which experimented with atonal lines at the outset but ultimately reverted to more familiar tonalities.

The first four chapters were oppressive in mood, as if portending a bleak fate for the planet and mankind, and it was in Chapter Five: Beginning / Pan Gu when the atmosphere lightened finally. Sebastine turned percussionist, swapping his violin for a drum, over which Teo's sax and Wong's viola soared unimpeded in this most exuberant movement.  

Toh was ever conscious that textures of each instrument were to be clearly differentiated. In Chapter Six, which had seven separate titles, a drone from the viola contrasted with caterwauling from the violin, while the next chapter saw both instruments in a tender duet. Elsewhere, the Western violin and Indian violin, both operating on different scales, duelled for primacy.

The Seventh to Ninth Chapters had no titles, except for question marks. Here the future of life on earth was being pondered; are we doomed or will we be saved? Chapter Eight saw all five soloists thick in action, and the ancient concerto grosso of the baroque period was all but being relived.

By now, most would have been totally confused by the narrative of the work, but the Tenth and final Chapter (no question marks and deliberately left blank) was to prove a watershed. Gloomy and troubling G minor had morphed into a reassuring G major at the end, thus suggesting salvation at hand.         

TO Ensemble's audience was a small but receptive one, and given Toh's zeal in proselytising his unique brand of crossover-jazz-world music, this should change sooner than later.