Monday, 24 July 2017

EXUBERANCE OF YOUTH / Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
Saturday (22 July 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 24 July 2017 with the title "An exuberant display of youth indeed".

Fresh from its successful concert tour of China, the Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra (SNYCO) gave a 2-hour long concert that exhibited prowess and versatility, both as a large ensemble as well as in smaller groups of players.

The evening began with Feng Xiao Quan's The Soaring Chinese Music, a mini concerto for orchestra which displayed the full potential of the ensemble's various sections while being a primer of the myriad colours and timbres of Chinese orchestral music. Led by Chinese guest conductor Sun Peng, it made for an impressive rousing overture.

The next two works were performed without conductor. Young Malaysian Chow Jun Yi's Momentum featured just ten players in a John Adams-styled minimalist piece based on a motif from Purple Bamboo Tune. Repetitious but never boring, the work gained in velocity and volume (like its title suggested) while precise pacing and timing - not an easy feat - were being maintained.

Young Singaporean Phang Kok Jun's Storytellers on Ann Siang Road utilised six players and two erhu soloists. This apparent duel between Chinese and Malay melodies pitted Li Siyu (backed by pipa and sanxian) against Low Likie (supported by ruan and yangqin) was an ingenious showpiece of musical repartee, resolved when both erhu rivals arrived at a happy confluence of thoughts and deeds.

The sections of bowed and plucked strings also had a field day, conducted by SNYCO Music Director Quek Ling Kiong. Li Bo Chan's Eagle Totem opened with an expansive melody not unlike those of John Barry film scores before launching into a fast and percussive Mongolian dance, like a soaring flight over the steppes. In Wang Dan Hong's Dynamic Plucked Strings, Latin and Caribbean rhythms accompanied by maracas ruled, with solo dizi sustaining melodic interest.

There was a return to full orchestral pieces, with Zhao Ji Ping's Impressions Of Macao being a mix of Western and Eastern influences. Rapidly bowed strings helmed its bookends, with Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla Overture and Shostakovich's Festive Overture being inspirations, while a Chinese melody and gentle Portuguese-styled dance served as its soft centre.

Veteran Singapore Chinese Orchestra player Sim Boon Yew's excellent variations on the Malay folksong Suriram is already a favourite, its raucous and rowdy strains lent an especially authentic air by infectious kompang drum rhythms and striking coconut shells.

It was left for solo suona and a heady chorus of suonas to herald Wang Dan Hong's The Spirit Of Jin from Impressions Of Shanxi, the noisiest work and closing piece of the evening. This highlighted a most enthusiastic yet disciplined showing from the 8-person percussion, which unleashed thunder and cannon roars into the atmosphere.

The title “Exuberance Of Youth” could not have been more apt, as the youngsters polished off an encore on their own and issued birthday greetings to a pleasantly surprised conductor Quek. The ensuing taking of selfies and congratulatory pats-on-the-back were hugely deserved. 

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, July 2017)

CHOPIN Works for Piano & Orchestra
NDR Elbphilharmonie / Krzysztof Urbanski
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6824 / *****1/2

The two piano concertos of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), while very popular, have been over-recorded. It is thus a welcome change to hear the other four of the Polish pianist-composer's works for piano and orchestra. Composed during his teenaged years and early-20s, these were conceived as showpieces for a rising virtuoso. 

The best-known is the Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise Brillante (Op.22), often heard as a solo work. Tacking together two completely different pieces, a nocturne-like cantabile and extroverted digital display are keenly contrasted.

Variations On La Ci Darem From Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Op.2) is heard on occasion. A work so inventive and scintillating, Robert Schumann hailed, “Hats off, a genius!” after hearing it for the first time. The true rarities are the Krakowiak (Op.14), a fast Polish folk-dance and Fantasy on Polish Airs (Op.13), with Chopin's nationalism proudly worn like a badge during his touring years. 

These receive marvellous performances filled with insight and vitality by young Polish-Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, who had previously recorded Chopin's 24 Études to great success. The German orchestral accompaniment led by fellow Pole Krzsztof Urbanski is by no means perfunctory, adding to a pleasurable hour of easy listening.    

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

BOUNDARIES / YAO XIAO YUN Piano Recital / Review

YAO XIAO YUN Piano Recital
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (16 July 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 July 2017 with the title "Sonorous expressions ruined by unruly audience".

“No Boundaries” or “Beyond Boundaries” was probably what Shanghai-born Singaporean pianist Yao Xiao Yun had in mind for the title of her piano recital, which covered the classical, Romantic and 20th century eras of musical history as well as Chinese music.

Smart or fancy titles are just means for marketing, but what matters most is the playing. The 2005 1st prize-winner of the National Piano & Violin Competition (Artist Piano Category) still has what it takes, and if anything else, has also matured during the intervening years.

An iron-clad technique was called for in Scriabin's Sonata-Fantasie No.2 which opened the concert. Perhaps she began a tad too deliberately, which made the first couple of minutes drag a little. However that was to contrast with a more passionate later section, in which she brought out a wealth of sonority. Amid the fine filigree, the melodic interest was never lost. In the tempestuous 2nd movement, she went for the jugular and the result was close to spectacular.

Similarly in Beethoven's “Les Adieux” Sonata (Op.81a), she made it a point to emphasise the first three sets of notes, which was a heartfelt farewell to his patron Archduke Rudolf who had fled Vienna from Napoleon's invading army. By omitting the repeats, the opportunity to hold steadfast to this statement had been lost. 

This was made up by a slow movement, representing the patron's absence, which could not have sounded more pained or forlorn. A joyous finale, expressing the ecstasy of a long-awaited return, capped another fine performance.

Yao's 13-year-old student Lin Chuanyin was offered a few minutes under the spotlight, and she acquitted herself well with a scintillating reading of Wang Jianzhong's famous transcription of Liu Yang River, which simulates the guzheng in the sound of cascading falls and rippling water. Yao returned with Wang's equally famous Bai Niao Chao Feng (Hundred Birds Paying Respect To The Pheonix), a brilliant mimicry of myriad birdsongs.

This evening was marred by the most unruly audience ever to step into a concert hall here. Excessive coughing, dropping of objects, children fidgeting, inappropriate applause, eating, drinking and a brazen videotaping via cellphone were among the repertoire of indignities witnessed. In short, this is the kind of audience regularly encountered in mainland China.

Undeterred, Yao made the best of her Chopin selection, bringing true cantabile to the D flat major Nocturne (Op.27 No.2) and the Andante Spianato before letting rip in the ensuing Grande Polonaise Brilliante (Op.22) and E flat major Waltz (Op.42). To close was Debussy's L'Isle Joyeuse (The Joyous Island), a collaboration with the pianist's father artist-calligrapher Yao Hai Cheng whose 11-metre long scroll painting on the same subject (displayed in the foyer) being the visual component.

A detail and several vignettes from
Yao Hai Cheng's 11-metre long scroll painting,
with a visual and literary dimension added
to Debussy's L'Isle Joyeuse.
That's what they mean by "Beyond Boundaries".

Yao's performance of the Debussy showpiece was both attentive to detail and colourful. The obligatory encore was shared with Lin, as both pianists polished off Brahms' Fifth Hungarian Dance with no little panache.

Thursday, 13 July 2017


Incursion Trio
Esplanade Recital Studio
Tuesday (11 July 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 July 2017 with the title "Thrills from a trio".

Some chamber groups have been established as local leaders of the chamber music genres which they perform. Already well-known are T'ang Quartet (string quartet) and Take Five (piano quintet), and more recently EDQ (wind quintet) has made its name.

Now meet Incursion Trio, comprising the husband-and-wife pair of Siew Yi Li (violin) and Beatrice Lin (piano), and its newest member Lin Juan (cello). On this concert's strength, one will expect it to become a force to reckon with, that is if the threesome gets to performs regularly enough.

The coupling of piano trios by Romantic Russian composers Piotr Tchaikovsky and Anton Arensky is not uncommon on CD recordings. In concert, however, this is a mountain to overcome for the musicians. The pianist never stops for a moment to rest. On this count, Beatrice Lin was a pillar of strength. Besides being spot-on technically, she had both power and projection, fueled by seemingly limitless reserves.

Here the piano becomes de facto leader, and it was easy for the Steinway grand to have totally dominated her string partners. Thankfully this was not the case, as both Siew and Lin Juan were just as resolute, possessed big tones and threw in their lot without reserve.

The opening to Arensky's First Piano Trio in D minor was delivered with such vividness and clarity that it was hard to mistake its nostalgia and melancholy. The skittish Scherzo proved more of a struggle; its tricky rhythms dogged the players and not all the jokes came off as slickly as planned.  

This was forgotten in the elegiac slow movement, achingly beautiful as it unabashedly bared its brooding Russian soul. The finale was a show of passion, its surge of adrenaline only stemmed by a return of the 1st movement's haunting theme. This sense of deja vu literally stops one's thoughts in its tracks, a highly effective plot device that was to be repeated in the Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor, which plays for over 45 minutes, is one of the monuments of the trio repertoire. Composed in memory of piano virtuoso friend Nikolai Rubinstein, who had previously rejected his First Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky was to ironically craft a work longer and even more taxing for the pianist.

The trio more than coped with its longeurs, especially the repetitious 1st movement which was delivered with seriousness, tinged with typically Tchaikovskyan sentimentality. Lin's opening cello plaint could not have been better rendered.

The 2nd movement's inventive Theme & Variations, another long movement, was so imaginatively coloured that time just flew past. There were variations in a style of a music box, a waltz, an elegy within an elegy, a mazurka, and culminating in an ever-busy fugue. The breathless last variation served as a long finale, and the 1st movement's theme returned, now as a plodding funeral march.

Surely performances of Rachmaninov's two piano trios cannot be far off from this excellent trio.

Two violinists: Siew Yi Li with his former teacher
Alexander Souptel, former Concertmaster
of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Author's note: Interestingly, the first time I heard a live performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio was in 1992 at the Scriabin House-Museum in Moscow. The violinist on that occasion was none other than Alexander Souptel, before he joined the SSO in 1993. What goes around comes around.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, July 2017)

KAPUSTIN Works for Cello
SWR Music 19002 / *****

The jazz-influenced music of Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin (born 1937) is no longer a stranger in concert halls, especially his highly virtuosic piano works.  His small output of cello works has finally received their due in the very capable hands of young German cellist Christine Rauh. 

The two major works in this collection are his Second Cello Concerto (Op.103) and Second Cello Sonata (Op.84). The Concerto, premiered by Rauh in 2014, leans more to film music rather than strict jazz, with an achingly beautiful slow movement that sounds like a tribute to classic Hollywood romances. She is accompanied by the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrucken Kaiserslautern conducted by Nicholas Collon.

The Sonata, as well as shorter pieces like Elegy (Op.96), Burlesque (Op.97) and Nearly Waltz (Op.98), are partnered by Benyamin Nuss on piano. These musings sound like jazz improvisations even if the parts were meticulously scored by the composer. The cello turns accompanist in Duett for alto sax and cello (Op.99) where an irrepressible saxophonist Peter Lehel holds court. 

Two of Kapustin's Piano Etudes (Op.40) have been transcribed for cello and vibraphone, with percussionist Ni Fan in support. As an encore, Rauh and Nuss' Hommage A Kapustin is a brief and touching tribute. Here are nearly 80 minutes of highly enjoyable listening.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

PREMIERE / Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra / Review

Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (8 July 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 July 2017 with the title "Rousing blend of music".

The Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra was inaugurated in 2016 to perform Asian symphonic works, with the mission of “celebrating them with equal regard as their Western counterparts”. Its third concert got off to an excellent start with young Singaporean composer Wang Chenwei's Confluence.

Implied in its title, the work cleverly fused themes based on Indian and Indonesian scales with Western compositional techniques. The flavour was unmistakeable Asian, down to raucous rhythms and slurring of melodies, before thematic material developed into a Bachian fugue. Originally composed for Chinese instruments, the World Premiere of its Western orchestration made for a rousing opener. 

Another World Premiere was Taiwanese composer Wang Yi-Lu's The Blue Planet: Earth, an erhu concerto featuring soloist Wong Qin Kai. Alternating between violence and serenity, the work pondered about the planet's origins and future, with the virtuosic erhu being its muse. Melodic interest included a theme reminiscent of Edelweiss (The Sound Of Music) while the often lively orchestral parts reminded this listener of works by Revueltas and Bernstein.

Xin Huguang's Gada Meiren (Ga Da Mei Lin) of 1956 is an established Chinese repertoire classic. The symphonic poem used a well-known Mongolian melody inspired by the eponymous warrior and national hero, first heard on solo oboe and developed into a full-blown rhapsody. Conducted by Dedric Wong, the music ambled from a pastoral opening into battle mode, the sort now often regarded as epic film music, before settling to an elegiac denouement. 

The young orchestra members coped well in the two-hour long concert, playing with much effervescent energy and in many occasions, no little refinement. Their Asian adventure continued with late Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar's 40-minute-long Symphony (realised by David Murphy), conducted by Adrian Chiang.

Composed in 2010 while in his nineties, the work was closer in spirit to the 1960-70s when he found worldwide fame in his association with the Beatles and Yehudi Menuhin. Each of its four movements is based on a raga, with the orchestra introducing the themes before brothers Krsna Tan (sitar) and Govin Tan (tabla) entering the fray.

Actual raga performances can last the best part of a morning or evening, but confined by the symphonic form, their scope for improvisation was limited to the score's dictates. Such is the “conflict” between Asian music and Western concert genres, stereotypes we often label as symphonies, concertos, suites and the like.

Nonetheless, this did little to curb the enjoyment of both soloists, with the finale (Banjara) culminating in Govin's extended tabla improvisation, Krsna's sitar spiel, an apparent duel and with the orchestra, an ecstatic romp to the finish.

Jeffrey Tan's exuberant Train To Euston, featuring the 6-man fusion band Flame Of The Forest (violin, sitar, tabla, percussion, keyboard, electric guitar and electric bass) served as an enjoyable encore. With cheers aplenty, the evening which started like a serious gig closed like a rock concert.    

GIL SHAHAM. BRAHMS SYMPHONIES / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (7 July 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 July 2017 with the title "A night of lovely fantasies".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra's new season opened with the music of a Singaporean composer. Soir, Reves, Fantaisie (Evening, Dreams, Fantasy) is the slow central movement of Tan Chan Boon's Second Symphony. Beginning with a French horn solo from Marc-Antoine Robillard and accompanied by gentle pizzicato strings, it conjured vistas of a bucolic Alpine scene. This and a second theme from the strings formed the meat of the movement, which unfolded with a quiet majesty and aural lusciousness before closing in total tranquillity.

Composer Tan Chan Boon
with SSO Music Director Shui Lan.

Tan is a 21st century composer with a 19th century soul. Mining a rich vein ploughed by the Wagner-Bruckner-Richard Strauss axis, he has already completed five symphonies. On the form of this sensitive reading, surely the SSO and Music Director Lan Shui has it in them to explore more of Tan's rewarding music.

American violinist Gil Shaham, a regular visitor to these parts, was the commanding soloist in Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto. The enfant terrible of Russian music, Prokofiev was to painfully pique ears with his brand of lashing dissonance, one which Shaham delivered in shovels. Crafting a vitriolic tone that was wholly appropriate for the work's grotesqueries, this performance came into its own in the lacerating Scherzo.

Shaham's use of sul ponticello (bowing near the violin's bridge) to create a wiry metallic timbre made the hair stand, soothed only by the finale's fairy-tale soundscape which was beautifully rendered with a balance close to perfect. Like Tan's work before, there was a pleasing symmetry to its fantasy-filled dream-like ending.

As an encore with orchestra, the brief and barbed Scherzo was reprised to no less stunning effect. On his own, Shaham offered the Gavotte from J.S.Bach's Partita No.3, which elicited even more cheers from the audience.

The concert closed with the First Symphony of Johannes Brahms. Like Beethoven before him, there can simply be no exhaustion from listening to Brahms' symphonies. Conducting completely from memory, conductor Shui took a more measured approach compared with his more mercurial stance on Beethoven's symphonies.

The sombre opening, full of foreboding and portending tragedy, was taken at a broad tempo. But this was not one of indolence or lack of volition, but one that gradually built up to a crushing climactic high. Like a skilled storyteller, the clarity and final aim of narration was never in doubt. The atmosphere was more relaxed in the slow movement, where Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich's lovely violin solo capped a fine showing near its close.

Woodwinds had their turn to shine in the light and spirited 3rd movement, paving the way for the dark clouds ushered in by the finale. How sternness and brooding in a minor key is transformed into major key sunshine, culminating in the finale's Beethovenian hymn-like melody was the miracle of this masterpiece. The opportunity offered to the orchestra was joyfully reciprocated as Shui led his charges to a glorious end, which was greeted by the applause it richly deserved. 

Conductor Shui Lan and violinist Gil Shaham
at the post-concert Symphony Chat.

Friday, 7 July 2017

THE RED VIOLIN with KAM NING / re:Sound / Review

Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (2 July 2017)

When it comes to string music, Singapore’s first professional chamber ensemble re:Sound are the people to go to. Its fourth concert, which featured only strings and led by London-based Singaporean ace violinist Kam Ning, showed exactly what the fuss was all about.

Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, comprising four neo-baroque movements crafted from his childhood compositions, opened the evening. From its outset, one is struck by the tautness of ensemble and homogeneity of its sound. Whether in the faster outer movements (Boisterous Bourée and Frolicsome Finale) or the nimble Playful Pizzicato, there was this togetherness that impressed. However it was in the Sentimental Sarabande with its more sustained lines where the richness of sonority became even more apparent.

The ensemble played standing throughout with Kam Ning in the lead violinist’s role. She took centrestage in the titular The Red Violin Suite, an extended “chaconne” crafted from the Oscar-winning score of the movie The Red Violin by John Corigliano. Her solo part was frighteningly virtuosic, requiring a Paganinian technique to surmount its myriad variations. This she accomplished with much poise, maintaining a nervous edge throughout the 25-minute-long piece.

Behind her, the backing strings were no mere accompanists, but equal partners in the mostly darkly-coloured and brooding endeavour. The opening was chilling, with strings capable of sounding both ethereal and eerie at the same time. There was also a battery of percussion which provided the desired startling effect to break the silences or as the tension mounted. 

The highly effective music, which accompanied the story of a centuries-old violin (painted red with the blood of the luthier’s late wife) through its turbulent history, was given the immediacy and violence it needed. In that respect, a “live” performance such as this one readily scores higher than any recording.

The second half had far more cheerful music, in the form of Richard Tognetti’s arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s First String Quartet in G minor. Again, Kam’s livewire and ebullient personality translated into a performance of energy and vigour. Playing for almost 35 minutes, it is filled with much of the folk and dance music associated with Grieg’s Norway. If the bounding second theme in the 1st movement sounded familiar, that is because it also appears in his better-known Piano Concerto.

A “quartet within a quartet” featured in the delightfully rustic central movements, with Kam joined by violinist Loh Jun Hong, violist Jonathan Lee and cellist Robert Choi. Their folksy and playful repartee added much colour and charm to the proceedings. The finale was a fast saltarello, an Italian dance not too dissimilar with a tarantella, taken at a devil-may-care speed. The right impulse was to surge ahead, yet there was never a doubt that Kam and her charges were fully in control.

The exhilarating finish was capped by a sublime encore, The Last Spring from Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies, played with tenderness and poignancy. re:Sound’s next concert on 18 October (with Melvyn Tan) will be keenly awaited.