Wednesday, 13 December 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, December 2017)

VICTOR HERBERT Cello Concertos
Mark Kosower, Cello
Ulster Orchestra / JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573517 / ****1/2

The Dublin-born American composer Victor Herbert (1859-1924) was a virtuoso cellist and bandleader before making his fame by writing musicals such as Babes In Toyland. His two cello concertos deserve to be heard mostly because they are filled with good memorable tunes besides being totally concert-worthy vehicles for cello virtuosos.

The First Cello Concerto in D major (1884) is slightly longer and in the traditional three-movement form that is shared by most Romantic concertos. His Second Cello Concerto in E minor (1894) is rather more famous, mostly because it had given the great Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak, then living in the States, ideas about writing his own cello concerto. The cyclical form with recurring themes contrasting the dramatic and lyrical, within three connected sections, makes it a concentrated but absorbing listen.

The likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Gautier Capucon have recorded it, both coupled with the Dvorak Cello Concerto. American cellist Mark Kosower is their equal and his disc provides further opportunities to explore unfamiliar territory. The splendid Ulster Orchestra directed by JoAnn Falletta adds Herbert's Irish Rhapsody (1892) which strings together popular Irish melodies of the time to glorious effect.      

Monday, 11 December 2017


Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday & Sunday 
(9 & 10 December 2017)

The biannual spectacular that is the National Piano Violin Competition (NPVC) is now managed by the Singapore Symphony Group, having taken over the reins from the National Arts Council after the 2015 edition. Much remained unchanged in the format, performance categories and repertoire requirements, and the grand finals for the Artist Category culminates with concerto performances with the NPVC Orchestra. This generically named orchestra is none other than the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, but shorn of principal players and augmented by free-lance professionals.  The conductor taking over Chan Tze Law's role (who had conducted the last six editions since 2005) was Joshua Kangming Tan.

There were only two finalists in this year's Violin Artist Category, chosen from a field of just four competitors.  It was notable that the two finalists were also the youngest, and neither of them were students of the local Conservatory.

It may be said that 12-year-old Yuri Tanaka from Japan (but resident in Singapore) has already won by making it to the finals after two gruelling earlier rounds. Her view of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor had much to recommend. She was quietly confident, extremely musical and produced a pleasing sound, topped with excellent intonation. She was on a reserved side in expression, and did not need to resort to extraneous gestures or movements to make her point. Her oh-so-correct demeanour is down to good teaching, as is her non-histrionic manner to rise to the music's challenges. There were rough edges in the heat of performance, such as in the mercurial finale, but she has many years ahead to polish and smoothen these out.

By comparison, 18-year-old Singaporean Ronan Lim Ziming almost seemed like an old master as he took on Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor. From the outset, one could feel his steely determination in this dark masterpiece. He produced a bigger and bolder sound, besides displaying a wider range of dynamics. His intonation was close to perfect and the first movement cadenzas, as with all the tricky articulation, were excellently dispatched. If there were a pinnacle to this reading, this took place in the slow movement which was scorched with a white hot intensity. By the finale, there were some frayed nerves but he overcame the quickfire dotted rhythms and relentless drive with astounding aplomb.

Having heard the Russian veteran Boris Belkin last week in Bangkok in the same concerto, I will not hesitate to add that young Ronan gave this listener a greater thrill and more spine-tingling moments. A shining future awaits. The jury of three adjudicators awarded 3rd prize to Yuri Tanaka, and 2nd prize to Ronan Lim, with the 1st prize gone abegging.     

One disappointing aspect was the utter lack of public interest in this competition. The Straits Times declined my offer to cover the concerto final rounds (although the later Prize-giving Ceremony and Final Concert was reviewed). And there could not have been more than 100 souls who attended the violin concerto finals on Saturday evening. The piano finals on Sunday afternoon saw slightly more people turning up, but the stalls of Victoria Concert Hall was filled with many gaping seats. Should there have been more publicity for what is supposed to be a marquee event celebrating young local musical talent?

There were three finalists in the Piano Artist Category out of a field of nine. Their performances with the all-but-in-name SSO made for an absorbing afternoon of piano concertos. First up was Lily Phee who performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor (K.466). She gave a totally musical account even if she did not project her limpid lines with the same power and force as the orchestra, which was for most part quite relentless in the driving opening movement. Her playing was however sensitive, with clarity and transparency being strong virtues. This was most apparent in the Romanze which was played most beautifully even if the central stormy G minor segment could have been better contrasted. The cadenzas were well-developed and the finale skipped with lightness and daintiness as it miraculous morphed from D minor to joyous D major. There was simply nothing to dislike in this performance.

Serene Koh, dressed in a glittery dark red sequinned gown, offered a strong Chopin First Piano Concerto in E minor, making a grand entry after the long orchestral tutti. Now we are now well and truly in the Romantic era, where passion and ardour rule over reserve and restraint. She delivered all this and more in a no-holds-barred reading that was also reliably accurate – with very few or no missed notes! The central Romance passed like a dream, taking its cantabile fully to heart.  The Rondo finale also came to life in a most ebullient manner, with her fingers flashing brilliantly its multitudes of notes. Have we found our 1st prize winner?

Jeong Han Sol, who hails from South Korea but studies in a local institution, had no problems projecting in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. His has a tendency to over-project, with loudness and brazenness, bordered on being pain-inducing. He is however capable of poetry and lyricism in the softer and slower parts, which provided relief from the aggressiveness that pervaded. That said, it were the many mistakes and slips that dogged this performance as a whole. On another day, he would have given a note-accurate account, so this rough and ready outing was most probably down to sheer nerves.       

It came as a surprise to me that no 1st prize was awarded (again!). Serene Koh placed 2nd (still the top placing) while Jeong Han Sol should be satisfied with coming in 3rd

Lily Phee in the Quarter-final round
performing Chopin's Second Ballade.

That the totally musical Lily Phee was not placed, and not even given an Honorable Mention has to be the scandal of this year's competition. Has it not mattered that she had passed through two tough rounds and bested six other players to make it to the finals, and all her hard work in Mozart K.466 had counted for nothing? While I note that the jury’s decision is final, this non-acknowledgement was not only discouraging, but also downright cruel.

One only hopes that a true musician will through his or her experiences - both good and bad - learn to overlook such rejections and become a stronger and wiser person in the long road ahead which we call life.  

Yuri Tanaka with her teachers
Alexander Souptel and Masako Suzuki.
Serene Koh with her
childhood piano teacher Angelyn Aw.

HITS OF CHINESE MUSIC I: WOODWINDS / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium
Friday (8 December 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 December 2017 with the title "A night where wind instruments shone".

This was an evening of oldies but goodies, familiar favourites which everybody wants to hear again. This took the form of arrangements for solo Chinese wind instruments, nine which featured twelve players of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra: five on dizi, four suona, two sheng and one guanzi.

All of the soloists were consummate virtuosos, bringing a wealth of experience and technical prowess to each piece. Even the non-concertante works, such as Xu Jing Qing's Flowers Blooming Everywhere, which opened the concert conducted by Yeh Tsung, had important moments for dizis and suonas to shine.

Such a programme necessitated that the works performed be short, but there was no shortage of quality. Tan Mizi's Beautiful Jiangnan, arranged by Sim Boon Yew, featured Zeng Zhi, Tan Chye Tiong and Phang Thean Siong on three dizis accompanied by a small ensemble. The flavour of Jiangnan shizhu, traditional chamber music of Suzhou, pervaded this charming work.

The orchestra's wind principals had plum roles, such as suona master Jin Shi Yi (above) in the Minnan-influenced Community Celebration by Ge Li Dao and Yi Kai Xian, and dizi exponent Yin Zhi Yang (below) in the very familiar Journey To Gusu by Jiang Xian Wei in an arrangement by Simon Kong. Both were rhapsodic works which alternated between fast and slow sections, thus displaying contrasting facets of their technique and artistry.

Guanzi principal Han Lei, sporting a gaudy Santa-red blazer (below), had paradoxically the most unremittingly sorrowful work on show, drawing a cathartic veil over the Northeast Chinese folksong Tears Of The River, also orchestrated by Sim. Its story was of a woman who went in search for her dead husband, but in vain as all she heard were sobs from a flowing river.

Far more cheerful were solos by Liu Jiang (suona), Lim Sin Yeo (dizi), Kevin Cheng and Guo Chang Shuo (sheng), who had just as demanding tasks to fulfil. These included tricky articulations and stretches requiring prolonged breaths, which were overcome with consummate ease.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of solo wind playing was the mimicry of birds, accomplished to a tee by Chang Le and Meng Jie on two suonas (above) in the famous Shandong melody Hundreds Of Birds Adoring A Phoenix, which took on a modernistic look in Simon Kong's arrangement. Both suonas approached from opposite side of the hall, and converged for a blow-for-blow duel in a comedic act which had the audience in stitches.

The concert closed with the full orchestra in three movements from Jing Jian Shu's Amorous Feelings For The Yellow River. Two solo dizis dominated the central movement, Ever-Flowing Waters, and the finale By The Fire saw dizis and suonas in full blast, dancing to the raucous beat of percussion. Prolonged applause prompted an encore in the popular Hua Hao Yue Yuan, which drew a rare standing ovation from an appreciative audience. 

Photographs by the kind courtesy of Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

Saturday, 9 December 2017


Kris Foundation Concerts
Esplanade Recital Studio
Thursday (7 December 2017)

Every year, the Kris Foundation (founded by philanthropist and SSO Ladies League member Kris Tan) presents recitals and concerts featuring talented young Singaporean musicians and the occasional foreigner residing in Singapore. This evening, the spotlight fell upon the Medan-born Indonesian pianist Evelyn Handrisanto, who was a graduate from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the 1st Prizewinner of the First Nanyang International Piano Competition held in Singapore earlier this year.

The first half of her concert showcased solo piano works, opening with Debussy’s Second Book of Images. Evelyn crafted a beautiful crystalline tone in Cloches a travers les feuilles (Bells Through The Leaves) with the use of exemplary pedalling, and the exoticisms of Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (And The Moon Sets Over The Temple) were very well brought out. The cycle finished with a shimmering view of Poissons d’or (Goldfish) which was built to a great climax.

The next two works were by young Singaporean composer Lim Kang Ning, who happens to be the daughter of Kris Tan. Sommerlied has an early Romantic feel, redolent of the sound world of Chopin, John Field and Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. The key moved from D major to D minor and then back, closing with a gentle waltz rhythm. Flower Visages, influenced by Chinese music, was more of a concert showpiece. It opened in C major in the manner of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s film scores before erupting into a vigorous dance embellished by sweeps simulating a guzheng. Evelyn played these very well, and one hopes to hear these again, especially the second piece.

The first half closed with Chopin’s Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise Op.22. Evelyn provided a nice pearly touch to the nocturne-like Andante even if she did miss a few notes in the ornamentations. The romping Polonaise was taken with vigour, and a few more notes were missed in this somewhat jittery performance before closing on a high.

The second half was devoted to Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, popularly known as the Trout Quintet. Evelyn was partnered by her friends from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Nadine Ng (violin), Jolene Goh (viola), Chee Jun Sian (cello) and Chee Jun Hong (double bass), and together they made many nice sounds. This work is the epitome of hausmusik, that Biedermeier concept of music-loving friends coming together to make music in a convivial spirit at home. Granted this was a public concert venue, but the atmosphere generated was one of informality and congeniality.

The players, save Evelyn, were informally attired but the music was treated with the respect it deserved. Evelyn was in sparkling form, providing the lead and main thrust of the performance. The players were young and sometimes this showed in the raw edges that were occasionally heard. However each movement was played with genuine love and lilt, culminating in the 4th movement’s Theme & Variations based on Schubert’s lied Die Forelle (The Trout). The finale was also taken at a goodly pace, closing the enjoyable concert in high spirits.

The performers with some of
their teachers and friends.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, December 2017)

Piano Sonata No.1
Deutsche Grammophon 481 632-2 / ****1/2

By winning both the Geneva and Busoni International Piano Competitions in 2015, the young Korean pianist Chloe Jiyeong Mun has been compared with the legendary Argentine Martha Argerich (who accomplished that same feat in 1957), but that is selling her short. 

The back-story is that she was born to severely handicapped parents and raised on government social support. Playing on school and church-owned pianos, she honed her art to an astonishing degree that is evident in the 22-year old's all-Schumann debut disc.

Robert Schumann's First Piano Sonata in F sharp minor (Op.11) and Fantasie in C major (Op.17) are sprawling and ambitious works which require that extra spark of imagination and flair to bring the pages to life. Mun possesses the technical wherewithal and physical reserve to withstand the longeuers, even in the meandering and repetitious finale of Op.11, or the treacherous octave leaps in the central movement of Op.17. 

Her chief rival in these works is not Argerich, but the Italian Maurizio Pollini (also on Deutsche Grammophon) who reveals a darker edge and doggedness to the music in his celebrated 1970s recordings. She however has a wonderful filler in Blumenstück (Flower Piece), which is most prettily performed. 

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

SONGS OF THE DRAGON KILN / Ding Yi Music Company / Review

Ding Yi Music Company
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (3 December 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 December 2017 with the title "Nostalgic ode to the dragon kiln".

This was not a concert in the traditional sense, but more a semi-interactive show-and-tell session accompanied by music from traditional Chinese instruments. Conducted and conceptualised by Quek Ling Kiong in collaboration with the team of composer Zechariah Goh Toh Chai, film director David Yap and heritage reseacher Lee Kok Leong, the concert centred on one of Singapore's dying trades – wood-fired pottery and porcelain created by a dragon kiln.

Photo credit: Tails from the Lion City

There are only two dragon kilns remaining in Singapore today, both located in Lorong Tawas (off Jalan Bahar), in the western reaches of the island. Come 2023, the 36-metre long brick-lined and clay-covered ovens, which can fire tens of thousands of pottery pieces at one go, will be no more as the government seeks to close them down. Gone, like traditional kampongs, fishing kelongs and long-demolished monuments like the National Theatre and National Library on Fort Canning, these will become fading memories and mere footnotes in history.

Photo credit: The Finder Singapore

Composer Goh's score was high on nostalgia, playing upon a recurring theme that was reminiscent of the Beatles hit song And I Love Her. Whether Freudian in intent or not, it certainly tugged on the heart-strings, especially when heard on Chee Jun Sian's cello or Yvonne Tay's guzheng. This memorable leitmotif accompanied the short film features on the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle's history and touching words by potter Yulianti Tan, descendant of its founder.

Two percussionists struck on pots with resounding clarity as a prelude, and the films rolled successively like chapters of a storybook. The history of pottery, architecture of the dragon kiln, the production process and associated rituals were outlined in basic terms such that even a child could understand. This was also aided by conductor Quek's engaging banter in Mandarin and a smattering of English.

As if to pad up the concert's hour-long duration, there was a slide-show segment featuring pottery and porcelain from around the world, with Suzhou pingtan, Middle Eastern-flavoured music and a version of Rasa Sayang being performed. The last was to represent the legacy of Peranakan kamcheng. After which, a quiz was held with winners taking home bits of pottery.

Then audience members were given an opportunity to accompany the orchestra by hitting and blowing on a wide array of pots that had been lying on the stage floor from the beginning of the concert. Striking to Quek's baton, a symphony of cacophony ensued, much to the relish of the invited performers.

The final chapter was provided by soprano Cherie Tse who sang a mellifluous ode to a Jurong urn, with words by Choo Liang Liang, Lu Yi and composer Goh. It dwelled on the sweat and toil of three generations of potters and the thousands of beneficiaries of their artistry. On that note, one pondered whether this nation could afford to forget and bury its heritage in the all-conquering name of progress.        

Sunday, 3 December 2017


The Culture Story,
Thye Hong Centre
Saturday (2 December 2017)

The most recent Music & Makan was held not at home but at an art gallery. This was the first time its founder Beverly Hiong ventured outside of her family home, to host a M&M session at The Culture Story, a gallery space located in Thye Hong Centre, near Redhill. 

On this occasion, the participating artists were to craft their works in a collaborative spirit with the art pieces on display, and the results were revelatory. The choice of inviting a soprano, harpist and sonic alchemist was an interesting one, which produced a somewhat unusual concert - with two of the world's oldest instruments (voice and plucked strings) juxtaposed with electronic manipulation of sounds. This with the modern art in the background conjured a sense of the surreal.

There was wine, desserts and sweetmeats, and the socialising that have made Music & Makan enjoyable and hopefully enduring encounters.    

An audience gathers before the session begins
Soprano Ng Jingyun surprised everyone by making
a sudden appearance with
Georges Aperghis' Recitations 11,
which combines speech,song and melodrama. 
Jingyun and harpist Laura Peh performed
melodies by Debussy and Fauré
On her own, Laura performed
Alphonse Hasselman's La Source.
The tools of sonic alchemist Mervin Wong
included his viola and a laptop with
fancy programmes that generate and morph music.
The audience was entranced by Mervin's creations,
including Reveries, Ab Aeterno, Aphelion and
Enter The Void which were "composed" in
response to various artworks.
The performers take a bow after the hour-long concert.
Music & Makan founder Beverly Hiong
addresses the audience.
With the music completed,
here's the makan segment!
Music celebrities like SSO Principal Cellist Ng Pei Sian
also attended, seen here with his friend Michelle and Beverly.
The audience mingling after the concert.