Saturday, 13 January 2018


Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
Tuesday & Thursday 
(9 & 11 January 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 January 2018 with the title "Delicious sounds at new piano festival".

In the 25th year of the well-established Singapore International Piano Festival (due later in June), a new international piano festival has emerged. Founded by Singaporean pianist Wang Congyu, the week-long event included a competition for youngsters, masterclasses, lectures and piano recitals by members of its international faculty.

There could not have been a more varied programme than Thursday night's offering by young Portuguese pianist Vasco Dantas. Opening with Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes Of Childhood) and closing with Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, this was a recital of contrasts, from arch simplicity to a vivid play of exotic and sometimes disturbing visions. 

He possesses the technique and endurance to master the sprawl of these canvasses, the imagination and palette to colour and characterise each of the 28 short pieces within. In between, Liszt-student Vianna da Motta's delightfully rustic Portuguese Scenes and the fearsome Guido Agosti transcription of three movements from Stravinsky's The Firebird provided further delicious piques for the ears.

A standing ovation from the audience was a just result. Tagged on like encores were Gershwin's Three Preludes, teasing with rhythm and blues, and Dantas' own improvisation on the hit song I Got Rhythm with motifs from Jingle Bells cheekily inserted.

Earlier in the evening, Michael Bulychev-Okser (Russia/USA) held a lecture-recital that centred on the art of transciption. The Bach-Busoni chorale prelude Ich Ruft Zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, Glinka-Balakirev The Lark and Kreisler-Rachmaninov Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) were familiar enough, but it was his selection of rarities that stood out.

Eduard Schutt's transcription of Brahms' Wiegenlied (Lullaby) was a showpiece guaranteed to keep babies (and audiences) awake. The lilt of Tirindelli-Liszt Mazurka No.2 was simply disarming while the Arensky-Siloti At The Fountain shimmered brilliantly through the underlying melancholy. Two Earl Wild etudes on Gershwin songs (Someone Like You and The Man I Love) and Rachmaninov's coruscating Floods Of Spring sealed a totally enjoyable virtuoso showcase.  

Held on Tuesday evening was a four-hands recital by locally-based husband-and-wife duo of Nicholas Ong (Malaysia) and Kim Bo Kyung (South Korea). Debussy's graceful 4-movement Petite Suite conjured visions of the Belle Epoque, from the gentle lilt of En Bateau (Sailing) to the final Ballet's exuberance. These paradigms of gentility were soon trumped by the waltzing tritones and dancing skeletons of Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, a witty celebration of things that go bump in the night.

On his own, Ong gave a scintillating reading of Schumann's Allegro in B major (Op.8), a rarity in recitals simply because it is so difficult to play. The duo resumed in the second half with Six Morceaux (Op.11) of Rachmaninov, varied short works that included a barcarolle, scherzo, waltz, romance, Russian song and Tsarist anthem. The interactive tension, delicate interplay and impeccable musicianship displayed are reasons why live performance will always be more exciting than any reproduced recording.

There will be competition performances and recitals till the closing evening on Monday. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018


Here are some more photographs from rehearsals of the Orchestra of the Music Makers' 10th anniversary concert to be held on Saturday 13 January 2018 at Esplanade Concert Hall. Conducted by Chan Tze Law, works by Dvorak, Wagner, Korngold, Arutiunian, Marquez and the World Premiere of Siginnah! (Naughty Boys) by Singaporean composer Jonathan Shin will be performed.

Tickets are still available at SISTIC:

The Lorong Boys take centrestage for
Jonathan Shin's Siginnah!
Violinists Gabriel Lee and David Loke.
Flautist Rit Xu and percussionist Joachim Lim
with conductor Chan Tze Law.
As you can see, Siginnah!
is a concerto of naughty pranks.
With a lusty shout of Siginnah!
from the Lorong Boys,
the concerto closes with exuberance.
OMM alumnus and present SSO trumpeter
Lau Wen Rong plays Arutiunian's Trumpet Concerto
Jonathan Shin and the Lorong Boys
meet students from Ang Mo Kio Secondary School
and National Junior College.

CD Review (The Straits Times, January 2018)

KARLOWICZ Violin Concertos
Chandos 5185 / *****

Some sixteen years separate the two violin concertos of Polish nationalist composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), but when heard one after another, they sound like contiguous movements of a mega-concerto that plays for some 45 minutes. 

The First Violin Concerto (1916) is so ethereally beautiful that its neglect in concert halls is perplexing. The outsized demands for the soloist, both technical and expressive, are likely the reason. Its rhapsodic nature and dynamic shifts from impressionistic dreaminess to boisterous drama makes it an exciting listen. The Second Violin Concerto (1932-33) that follows is more compact, utilising gritty folk music elements in its two movements linked by a cadenza.    

The Violin Concerto in A major (1902) by the short-lived Mieczyslaw Karlowicz (1876-1909, killed in an avalanche while mountaineering) comes from a different era. Its spirit is closer to the effusive Romanticism of Wieniawski, Bruch and Glazunov with the requisite fireworks to match. 

All three concertos receive gorgeous performances by British violinist Tasmin Little that go to the music's heart, the perfumed decadence of Szymanowski and the showmanship of Karlowicz. Every detail of is captured on demonstration sound by Edward Gardner's excellent BBC Symphony Orchestra. A must listen for violin lovers.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018


Opening Concert, Steinway Gallery
Monday (8 January 2017)

There is a new international piano festival in town. Named the International Piano Island Festival, it is the brainchild of young Singaporean and Paris-trained pianist Wang Congyu. The festival alternates between Singapore and the Reunion Islands where Wang and his wife Julie reside and run a music school. This festival includes a piano competition for young musicians, a series of masterclasses, private lessons, lectures and concerts by an international panel of pianists.

Please find more information at its dedicated website:

and its detailed calendar of events:   

Below are photographs of the festival's opening event, a short recital by members of its faculty, held at Steinway Gallery Singapore at ION Orchard.

Wang Congyu opens the Festival.
Well-known Singaporean piano pedagogue
Benjamin Loh played with great sensitivity
Leonard Bernstein's Touches.
The duo of Nicholas Ong (Malaysia)
and Kim Bo Kyung (South Korea) charmed with
En Bateau from Debussy's Petite Suite.
Michael Bulychev-Okser (Russia/USA)
offered the Humoresque from
Rachmaninov's Morceaux de Salon Op.10 
Elena Nestorenko (Russia/Germany)
gave a sneak peak to her all-Chopin recital
on 12 January with the Fantaisie-Impromptu.
Aimo Pagin (France) was most expressive
in Liszt's Petrarch Sonetto No.104
The festival team is introduced.
Here are the faculty members,
now joined by Eliane Reyes (Belgium)
who had just arrived from Changi Airport.
The kid needs piano instruction now!

Monday, 8 January 2018


OMM Conductor Chan Tze Law
addresses his audience. 

Open Rehearsal
Sunday (7 January 2018)

The Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) celebrates this year its 10th year of existence. Whoever thought that a group of students who yearned to play their favourite pieces in an orchestra could sustain their interest and recruit newer members for their course over a period of ten years?

The first concert of its 10th anniversary celebrations will be held on Saturday 13 January 2018 at the Esplanade Concert Hall, conducted by its Artistic Director Chan Tze Law. It brings back popular works the orchestra performed during its early years as well as some new and landmark works. The programme includes Dvorak, Wagner, Korngold, Arutiunian, Marquez and the World Premiere of young Singaporean composer Jonathan Shin's Siginnah! 

Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (13 January 2017), 7.30 pm

Tickets may be purchased at SISTIC. 
Please click on this link:
Jonathan Shin speaks at an informal Q&A.

Jonathan Shin's Siginnah! is a three movement modern concerto grosso featuring The Lorong Boys, a 5-member folk band of which he is a member. The title Siginnah! (Naughty Boys!) comes from a Hokkien exclamatory phrase that roughly translates as "damn kids", a sort of Singlish that is heard only spoken by an older generation of Singaporeans (or Malaysians for that matter).

In it, Shin relives the sounds and scents of his youth. Although he is only 25 years old, his experiences have been vastly different from the teens and tweens of today, hence his expresses a certain nostalgia which can only be peculiar for people of his age. Bird sounds and the klaxon of the karang guni man could be heard in his work. 

The Lorong Boys comprises Shin (piano), David Loke and Gabriel Lee (violins), Rit Xu (flute) and Joachim Lim (percussion). This folk band caused a stir while performing inside Singapore's MRT trains during peak hour. Instead of being arrested as an unlawful assembly, their antics went viral and have been justly celebrated. In a way, Siginnah expresses this exuberance we oldies can only dream about. 

Jonathan Shin speaks to his audience.
A view from the mallets.
OMM rehearses Marquez's Danzon No.2.

MAHLER 7 / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (6 January 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 January 2017 with the title "Myriad emotions felt in one symphony".

Concerts featuring a single symphony as the only work are now becoming more common with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. This is especially so when programming symphonies by Gustav Mahler as more than half of his ten symphonies run in excess of 75 minutes. The Austrian composer once proclaimed, “A symphony is like a world, it must embrace everything,” and so it was with SSO's fourth performance of his Seventh Symphony.

Considered the most enigmatic and least accessible symphony of the canon, the Seventh is also the most problematic in terms of interpretation. Its sheer profusion of themes, ideas, emotions, moods, philosophies and instrumental quirks often leave listener confused as to the composer's thoughts and intentions. Unlike his symphonies which end with tragedy (No.6), resignation (No.9), bliss (No.4), or triumph (most of the others), the messages sent in the five movements of the Seventh can be seen as mixed or equivocal.

Music Director Shui Lan's vision seemed to to follow Mahler's famous dictum, that is to be all-encompassing. The lugubrious 1st movement opened unusually with the call of the tenor horn, here heard on Marques Young's euphonium, with the pace being a funereal trudge. That was contrasted with a lyrical and yearning second theme first heard on the strings, with the transitions in between being most subtly handled.

Even the first big orchestral climax was patiently built up, and it crept up almost surreptitiously. This made the next climax seem all the more mighty, and more vehement. That surely is the art of interpreting, following close scrutiny and study of the score's architecture, not merely notes and notations.

Percussion principal Jonathan Fox
tending to the slung cow-bells.

The three central movements were also unusual as it included two designated as Nachtmusik (Night Music) with a Scherzo filled with dark, hissing grotesquerie in between. Here Mahler's peculiar scoring included slung cowbells, mandolin and guitar, besides a battery of assorted percussion, almost the proverbial kitchen sink.

More importantly, the performance brought out the vulgar, homespun country inspiration of the 2nd movement and the sickly sweet sentimentality of the 4th movement. The intervening Scherzo abounded with spectral sound effects, nocturnal noises, which just about disguised a parodistic waltz, arguably Mahler's weirdest symphonic movement.

All these earthy qualities, typical of and true to the composer's checkered life experiences, were  thrown into this mix. Outstanding were the solo contributions of French horn principals Jakob Keiding (guesting for the indisposed Han Chang Chou) and Jamie Hersch, trumpet principal Jon Dante, and the brass and woodwind sections as a whole.

The finale, combining Rondo and sonata form in a single movement, provided the symphony the levity it cried out for. To this end, Shui and his charges delivered with briskness and much  aplomb. Its secondary themes were tossed around with playful and almost whimsical abandon before a drive to the symphony's thrilling close. It was a way of saying, “Life's a pain, but have fun anyway”.

With a wave of the hand,
Music Director Shui Lan bids farewell.

Sunday, 7 January 2018


The Inspiring Trio
Esplanade Recital Studio
Friday (5 January 2018)

If you wish to get a glimpse of the future of piano playing in Singapore, you could do worse than to attend a concert by students of Singapore’s most effective and inspiring piano teachers. The School of Young Talents at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts is an obvious start-point, but The Musique Loft (an alliance of music teachers based in Singapore’s east coast district founded by Winnie Tay and Angelyn Aw) has much to offer as well.  If one considers that the likes of Azariah Tan and Clarence Lee (Winnie’s former prodigies) and Serene Koh (Angelyn’s star pupil) arose from their respective studios, performance of their current students will need to be taken seriously.

This concert by The Inspiring Trio – Chen Jing, Toby Tan and Jessie Meng - three students of Winnie Tay, in support of The Business Times Budding Artist Fund may have important implications for the future. Dr Andrew Freris, President of the Chopin Society of Hong Kong, once referred to child prodigies as “real artists who happen to be really young”. Hence there is evidence that something serious and exciting is going on in those studios.

Chen Jing (8 years old) was the first to perform. Close your eyes, and you would not imagine Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major (Op.118 No.2), late Brahms to be certain, being played by someone this young. Her warm, cushioned sound was a balm to the ears, and she was also able to bring out the inner voice of the swifter central section. In two of Chopin’s waltzes (Op.64 No.2 and Op.18), an innate feel of rubato was evident, allied by a silken touch and limpid fingerwork. This was an excellent opener to the recital.

Toby Tan (9 years old, but almost a head shorter) put his prodigious finger to work in Debussy’s Arabesque No.1, Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C sharp minor and Schubert’s vertiginous Impromptu in E flat major (Op.90 No.2). The repetitive nature of the last seemed a tad unrelenting, and the reading could do with more charm. However there were no reservations in Toby’s original composition Sorrow of Love, a pop and New Age influenced piece which showed development of ideas, culminating with a stormy central interlude with a short cadenza to boot.

Jessie Meng (10 years old) was recently awarded 1st prize at the Singapore National Piano & Violin Competition (Intermediate category), and her performances showed exactly why. I cannot imagine Balakirev’s transcription of Glinka’s The Lark being played any better. Her shaping of its melancholic melody, colouring of the accompaniment, capped by virtuosic ornamentations made this a dream performance. Her view of Chopin’s Scherzo No.2, a new work for her, was less formed. There were wrong and missed notes for sure, but there was no denying her passion.

And that was only the first half (entitled The Affectionate). The second half programme, The Exhilaration, saw changes in outfits for all three pianists. Chen Jing emerged to have a heartfelt account of the 1st movement Mozart’s Sonata in F major (K.332). At once, the realisation that she does not play to the metronome but breathes the music with all its myriad dynamic changes showed she is a thinking artist. What was there not to like in a selection from Shostakovich Dances of the Dolls (innocence, irony and droll humour are not alien to her) and the note-spinning of Wang Yu Shi’s Sunflower

Toby Tan, now attired in a three-piece suit and spiffy hat, looks the born entertainer in his playing of Astor Piazzolla’s Street Tango, Gershwin’s Prelude No.1 and I Got Rhythm. In all of these, he displays an assurance, swing and pizzazz which adults would be envious of. This was topped by Fazil Say’s Alla Turca Jazz, a ragtime version of Mozart’s popular rondo, which was a charmer through and through.

Jessie Meng returned with the meat of her programme, which began with the 1st movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C major (K.330). This was a very assured reading, and it got even better with the 1st movement of Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Sonata No.3, a work once championed by Vladimir Horowitz. She took its alternating dissonances and lyricism in her stride, which all but suggests that she is ready to tackle the early Prokofiev sonatas. The barnstorming ended with the tempestuous final movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.  

The Inspiring Trio, as the threesome is called, gave an encore composed by Toby Tan called Magical Music Box. It was not so much a tinkling musical box miniature but more of a rumbling and punchy barn dance with musical boxing along the way – very entertaining and a surefire way to close the concert proper.

This concert was in aid of The Business Times Budding Arts Fund, and one of its previous beneficiaries, a vocal group called Harmonix formed by four rather self-conscious teenagers, performed two pop songs Don’t Stop Believing and You Raise Me Up. They were more of an incidental side show in an evening dominated by three quite incredible children.