Saturday, 29 April 2017

SCENTS OF JOSEPHINE / Bellepoque / Review

Black Box @ Drama Centre
Thursday (27 April 2017)

To do justice to a well-loved historical personality within a production of 90 minutes is a tall order. All the more if that happened to be the multi-faceted artist that was America-born singer-dancer Josephine Baker (1906-1975) who made her fame and fortune in France.

Part of the Voilah! French Festival, Scents Of Josephine was not a musical, but a play by Singapore-based French playwright Marc Goldberg with musical pieces running through its thread. Baker does not appear as a character, instead her life and legacy were mirrored by four women in the form of a backstage discussion.

Reflections of Josephine might also have been an apt title, but the audience got many whiffs and wafts of Baker, which made much sense of Scents. While none of the women remotely resembled the sexy and seductive African-American waif in her prime, but their totally riveting story-telling hit the mark.

An air of informality presided over Samzy Jo's stage direction, and the audience unsuspectingly becoming eavesdroppers on the foursome. British Afro-Caribbean actress Sharon Frese had the only non-singing part, and she immediately broke the ice by raising the topic of race, illustrated by the irony of black women straightening their hair and lightening their skin to appear whiter.

With race out in the open, there was scope to discuss gender, sexual orientation, social status, equality, human rights and other seemingly contentious subjects. Baker was a woman ahead of her time, breaking all barriers in her performances, dances, costumes and alternative lifestyles. She was an icon like today's Madonna, Britney Spears, Rihanna and Kardashians all rolled into one.

The three vocalists provided different vistas to Baker's personality. French jazz singer Andayoma portrayed strength and resilience, Singaporean musical theatre singer Caitanya Tan oozed youthfulness and sexuality, while Italian operatic soprano Sabrina Zuber exposed frailty and vulnerability.

The songs, well-chosen and neatly dovetailed ino the script, ran the gamut from American musical theatre (Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin), Latino hits (Besame Mucho, Brasil) to French chansons (Trenet, Scotto, Misraki). The “orchestra” provided by Robert Casteels (piano), Viviane Salin (violin) and Balraj Gopal (synthesiser guitar) also included a segment of Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring to depict Baker shocking her German audiences.

An attempt to include Singapore into the framework was mercifully limited to few Singlish phrases, but there was a comical scene when 1930s news snippets on Baker in The Straits Times were quoted. The audience also learns that a 1938 world tour (including Singapore) was unfortunately cancelled just before the outbreak of war.

The singularly most gripping scene was Frese reliving Baker's 1963 speech alongside Martin Luther King in his Civil Rights Movement march on Washington D.C., a veritable showstopper. What about Baker's infamously skimpy “skirt of bananas”? It finally made an appearance in the final ensemble song Feeling Like A Million, on a more than adequately covered Caitanya Tan. Was this a case of “less flesh please, we're Singaporeans”?

Playwright Marc Goldberg speaks.
 Photographs by the kind permission of Bellepoque.

Thursday, 27 April 2017


Photo by Cheung Chi Wai,
Courtesy of Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay


Experience one of Asia's great orchestras perform at Esplanade Concert Hall on 1 May 2017. The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra led by its Music Director Jaap van Zweden performs for one night only in its Esplanade Concert Hall debut.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic, formed in the 1970s during the British colonial era, has previously performed in Singapore in concerts at Victoria Concert Hall in 1983 and 1999. The pride of Hong Kong SAR, its reputation has never been greater, boosted by its recent performances of Wagner's Ring Cycle under Dutch maestro Jaap van Zweden.

This concert offers a rare opportunity for concert-goers to face the conductor head-on and observe his directions, with tickets to gallery seats being sold at $35 and $50.  Jaap van Zweden is also the Music Director designate of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. His last appearance in Esplanade was conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra at the Singapore Sun Festival in 2009.

The programme is as follows:

FUNG LAM Quintessence 
  (HKPO commission)
MOZART Violin Concerto No.4
MAHLER Symphony No.1 "Titan"  

The soloist is Chinese violinist Ning Feng, past winner of the Paganini International Violin Competition. 

Monday, 1 May 2017
7.30 pm, Esplanade Concert Hall

Tickets at $35, $50, $75 and $100 are available at all SISTIC outlets and the SISTIC website via the link below:

Photo courtesy of Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay

Do book early to avoid disappointment.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, April 2017)

A Life Of Music Records
(15 CDs + 1 DVD) / ****1/2

American pianist Steven Spooner, professor of piano at the University of Kansas, was largely trained in the Russian School of piano playing. Having studied both in Moscow and Tblisi (Georgia), the repertoire he presents in this handy box-set mirrors those favoured by his pianistic idols, namely Sviatoslav Richter (represented by 8 CDs), Vladimir Horowitz (3 CDs), Emil Gilels and Van Cliburn (who himself was taught by a Russian). 

He does not slavishly copy their styles. Instead he summons their collective spirits, allied with playing informed by his schooling, which emphasises interpretive rigour and solid technique. 

Alongside heavyweight works such as Liszt's Sonata in B minor, Schubert's Sonata in B flat major and song cycle Winterreise (with baritone Chris Thompson), Brahms' Piano Quintet (with the Borromeo Quartet) and Debussy's Préludes Book 1 (3 performances), one will also find rarities and gems. 

His teacher, the Georgian pianist Nodar Gabunia's A Pupil's Diary, Schnittke's rarely-heard Piano Concerto and American Mohammed Fairouz's Second Sonata are well worth several listens, while Arensky's Elegie in G minor is a melody to die for. 

Spooner's own improvisations of gospel hymns and Concert Etudes in the styles of Martha Argerich, Keith Jarrett and Horowitz make perfect encores. In lieu of printed programme notes, he supplies audio commentaries at the end of each disc which are both insightful and personal.  

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, April 2017)

with Rohan de Silva, Piano
Deutsche Grammophon 886 046-9 / *****

In 2015, Taiwanese violinist Tseng Yu-Chien was awarded the 1st prize at the inaugural Singapore International Violin Competition. Within the same year, he won 2nd prize at the International Tchaikovsky Violin Competition in Moscow, undoubtedly an even more coveted accolade. 

This debut recital disc issued by Universal Music Taiwan shows the confidence of youth in abundance. Not all of the programme is virtuoso fodder, as he displays a totally musical and more lyrical side in Mozart's Violin Sonata in B flat major (K.454), Chopin's Nocturne (Op.27 No.2) in August Wilhelm's arrangement and Tchaikovsky's Melodie from Souvenir d'un lieu cher.

Even in flexing his Paganinian prowess, there is much nuance in Tartini's Devil's Trill Sonata, working from its calm and sanguine opening to an increasingly frenzied conclusion. In the unaccompanied Last Rose Of Summer Variations by Heinrich Ernst, the intricacy, detail and perfect intonation of his playing becomes more apparent, reaching full fruition in Wieniawski's fearsome Variations On An Original Theme

The 1732 Guarneri del Gesu violin he plays on, on loan by a Taiwanese foundation, and veteran piano accompanist Rohan de Silva prove worthy partners. Heartily recommended. 

Tuesday, 18 April 2017


KEVIN LOH, Guitar et al
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (16 April 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 April 2017 with the title "Inspirational folk music". 

Spanish flautist Roberto Alvarez has introduced more new music to audiences than anyone else, including world and local premieres of works by Spanish, Singaporean and New Zealand composers. His latest concert, a collaboration with HSBC Youth Excellence Award recipient guitarist Kevin Loh, however shied away from the avant-garde.

All the works had inspirations from folk music and the past, beginning with Maximo Diego Pujol's Suite Buenos Aires with four movements reflecting colours and flavours of different districts in the Argentine capital. Similarities with Piazzolla's Portenos (Seasons) exist, but these were not tangos. Palermo exuded melancholy and nostalgia, while scherzo-like San Telmo had vigourous rhythms tapped out by Alvarez's feet and Loh's hands.

If one thought Alvarez had all the melodies, Loh showed that his nifty guitar provided more than merely accompaniment. With a good share of lyricism and virtuosic flourishes, he closely tracked the flute in the finale Microcentro, a perpetual motion with spiky dissonances for good effect.

Moving northwards, Celso Machado's Musiques Populaires Bresiliennes exhibited a more gentle side, with less angular and jolting rhythms but no less spirit. Three movements included the title Choros (songs of street musicians), a form also employed by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. With hardly a line separating folk music from concert music, only a pedant could resist the allure of Sambossa, a bossa nova number lightly spiced with some harmonic ambiguity, leading to Pe De Moleque, which was a fast and lively samba.

The most traditional work was Hungarian Bela Bartok's Six Romanian Dances, a popular study of ethnomusicology. Better known in its version for violin and piano, the flute and guitar guise was no less piquant, but should the audience have applauded after each minute-long dance?

The duo was joined by pianist Kseniia Vokhmianina, double-bassist Tony Makarome and drummer Ramu Thiruyanam in French jazz pianist-composer Claude Bolling's Picnic Suite, receiving its Singapore premiere. Cast in seven movements, it is a tribute to the baroque suite of disparate dances.

Note the picnic basket on the right.

The 1st movement Rococo opened with a fugue. Guitar followed flute, and when the “orchestra” entered, it opened up a new world of sound – of syncopations, blues and collective letting down of hair. Every phrase had been notated on score, but the playing was so natural and convincing that it sounded fresh and improvised.

Gaylancholic was the title of the 3rd movement, swinging between the two groups, a friendly contest where formal lines alternated with the seemingly informal. “Gay” must be taken in the traditional sense of the word, which means happy. Alvarez turned to the alto flute for the lyrical Tendre, a beautiful interlude before the busy bantering of Badine, a reference to Bach's Badinerie from his Second Suite (which prominently features the flute).

There were two gratefully received encores, a dance by Pixinguinha and an Asturian lullaby sung to Alvarez by his mother. True to form, the latter was also a World Premiere.     

Saturday, 15 April 2017

QIN LI-WEI & YANG YANG: BARBER & RACHMANINOV / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (13 April 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 April 2017 with the title "Romantic fare greeted with wild applause".

There was a time during the middle of the last century when it was unfashionable, even retrogressive, to be a composer with Romantic inclinations. Tonality and the ability to write a good tune are now back in vogue, which explains why Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninoff are among the most regularly performed of 20th century composers today.

Late Romanticism ruled the Conservatory Orchestra's latest concert, conducted by young prize-winning Chinese conductor Yang Yang. Barber's Cello Concerto was given a rare performance by Chinese-Australian cellist Qin Li-Wei, who swallowed its host of technical and musical challenges whole.

The orchestra did its part by delivering its introduction well. Filled with tricky woodwind solos, essentially the opening movement's motifs and themes, this heralded Qin's imposing entry. His cello tone was incisive and searing, yet filled with tenderness for lyrical passages to shine through. Also thorny and rhythmically exacting, the seemingly opposing qualities were reeled off with stunning aplomb, culminating in a virtuosic cadenza.

It was a mistake to have allowed latecomers entry during the short pause between the first two movements. The tardily nonchalant and noisy manner in finding their seats despoiled the slow movement's idyll between cello and solo oboe. Inappropriate applause after the movement also jarred, far more than the occasional flat brass entries that came before.

It took the finale's heroics, with Qin leading the charge, that the concerto's conclusion was greeted with rowdy applause. He obliged with two exquisite solo encores in Giovanni Sollima's Alone and Peteris Vasks' Pianissimo from Book (Gramata), the latter requiring several rapt moments of wordless vocalising in harmony with the cello.

The second half belonged to Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, the second time the Conservatory Orchestra has programmed it. The previous occasion was in 2009, conducted by American pianist-conductor Leon Fleisher in Kent Ridge. Conductor Yang's charges this evening are arguably a finer cohort of musicians, and the manner in which they began the 55-minute long work was exemplary.

The expansive tempo adopted was in no way at risk of falling apart. When the main Allegro section arrived, there was a sense of joyous release. The development was exciting enough, but if it were laced with more impetuosity and wildness, the impact would have been greater. The Scherzo was well-marshalled despite the high speeds involved, and the Tchaikovskyan outburst at its centre could not have been better done.

By the Adagio, one was grasping for superlatives. Pride of place went to clarinettist Jang Zion for his characterful solo, borne of a ripe, creamy tone that will remain long in the memory. The trance-like sequence of solos incanting the movement's main theme, performed with consummate skill, underlined the music's Russianness. The rapturous finale, whipped into an ecstatic ride with  surging runs, was also a joy. That visceral thrill elicited the most rabid of ovations, which was the least this evening's unabashedly Romantic fare deserved.     

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, April 2017)

Prima Facie  PFCD050 / ****1/2

Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015) was one of Scotland's greatest musical treasures, a larger-than-life figure in the mould of Franz Liszt (West Linton near Edinburgh was his Weimar), and musical heir to pianist-composers like Ferruccio Busoni and Percy Grainger. 

Described to be “incapable of writing a genuinely easy piano piece”, this recital album by his disciple Kenneth Hamilton is an excellent introduction to his contrapuntally complex yet accessible style. Not a single note is superfluous or wasted. 

Of the three major works here, best-known is his Peter Grimes Fantasy, where themes from Benjamin Britten's opera are pithily compacted into 8 minutes, much like in Busoni's Carmen Fantasy. Beltane Bonfire, inspired by a Scottish folk festival, is both fugal and virtuosic, a competition showpiece. The monumental Symphonic Elegy For Liszt superficially resembles a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, but with distinct Scottish accents.

Stevenson is also shown as an effective miniaturist in his arrangements of Scottish ballads and Elizabethan dances, while his transcriptions of Ivor Novello's We'll Gather Lilacs and Richard Tauber's My Heart And I are so luscious as to be almost decadent. Hamilton cleverly throws in Rachmaninov's own Lilacs just to prove the point. A revelatory and enriching listen beckons.  


Tuesday, 18 April 2017
Esplanade Recital Studio, 7.30 pm

Programme includes:

STEVENSON Three Scottish Ballades
CHOPIN  Sonata No.3
ALKAN By the Waters of Babylon
MERRICK-STEVENSON Hebridean Seascape
DEBUSSY L'isle joyeuse
LISZT Deux Legendes

Tickets at $32 available at SISTIC

Please click on link above to buy tickets.

Saturday, 8 April 2017


YEE EE-PING Vocal Recital
with Pauline Lee (Piano)
Esplanade Recital Studio
Thursday (6 April 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 April 2017 with the title "Opera singer's daughter almost steals the show".

The London-based soprano Yee Ee-Ping is one of finest opera singers to come out of Singapore. The former Young Artist Award receipient's appearances here have been all too few. Yet who could forget her unforgettable portrayal of Puccini's Manon Lescaut with the Singapore Lyric Opera in 2012 or her debut as Micaela in Bizet's Carmen way back in 1998?

It has been three years since her last recital here, so this evening's offering was well-attended despite the scant publicity. There was hardly any opera, instead she sang art songs grouped according to the sung language. Italian came first, with Pergolesi's Se tu m'ami (If You Love Me) which sounded too Romantic to be actually baroque.

The work was actually composed by one Alessandro Parisotti, an 19th century composer and editor. Yee filled the love song with so much longing and depth of feeling that it did not matter, and she did the same for Tosti's Ideale and de Curtis' well-known Neapolitan song Torna a Surriento (Come Back To Sorrento).

German lieder was next, with best-known numbers by Schubert (An die Musik), Schumann (Widmung) and Richard Strauss (Morgen!) characterised by clear diction, enunciation and perfect intonation. In the Strauss, the beautiful violin obbligato part which opened was played by her daughter 8-year-old Kiara Taylor with so much conviction that she almost stole the show.

Taylor had two other solos, performing Elgar's Salut d'amour and Monti's Csardas with some self-consciousness while accompanied by pianist Pauline Lee. The audience was in titters as Taylor had to shyly hand her instrument to Lee to have it tuned, but rewarded her pluck with hearty applause.

Yee's French group of melodies included Chausson and Poulenc, the latter who could never write a poor tune. In C and Les chemins d'amour (The Paths of Love) by Poulenc, wistfulness and nostalgia were lovingly captured. Yee was totally at home with mother-tongue Chinese, in Yanzi (Swallow Dear) and Hong Dou Chi (Red Bean Lament) from Dream of the Red Chamber, the tragic qualities coming through with much vividness.

Perhaps the trickiest songs to pull off were the ones sung in English. One could barely catch the words to Samuel Barber's St. Ita's Vision, Nocturne and O Boundless, Boundless Evening, but their darkly hued Romantic sensibilities were nonetheless assiduously honed to hit ecstatic highs and pluck at heart-strings.

Yee reserved some of the most breathtaking moments for her last two songs, both by Franz Lehar. It was scarcely believable to witness the degree of breath control she displayed in the Vilja-Lied from The Merry Widow, the sort which could make or break a performance.

Then she became all amorous, flirting with gentlemen and tossing flowers into the audience while singing Meine lippen sie kussen so heiss from Giuditta. After the loud applause had settled, her favourite encore, Puccini's O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi reminded us again what a fine opera singer she is.

Thursday, 6 April 2017


The Cambridge International Opera made its Singapore debut, performing at Singapore's newest concert venue, the Far East Auditorium of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre on Wednesday 5 April 2017. The newly formed opera company featured five young singers who have studied and graduated from various colleges in Cambridge and the United Kingdom, and have been active in the college choral and vocal scene.

Its concert, part of an Asian tour which included also Hong Kong and Bangkok, featured a wonderful range of popular arias, duets and ensemble scenes from the great operas. These were mostly in Italian and French, with an odd aria sung in English. It was an enjoyable and entertaining evening, not unlike New Opera Singapore's concerts featuring young artists, but without the farcical comique plots and over-acting. Some of these singers could become big names in the international opera circuit in the future, but this was a promising start.

Counter-tenor Tim Morgan had one of
the most impressive voices, starring in
Handel's Ombra mai fu (Serse) and an aria
from Israel in Egypt
Tenor Rob Humphries sang some bel canto favourites
like Donizetti's Una furtiva lagrima (L'elisir d'amore)
 and Cilea's Federico's Lament (L'arlesiana
Humphries is joined by baritone Lawrence Halksworth
in what else - Bizet's Au found du temple saint
from The Pearl Fishers.
Morgan and soprano Billie Robson
in Pur ti miro from Monteverdi's
L'incoronazione di Poppea.
Mezzo-soprano Simone Ibbett-Brown
is a name to look out for. She sang popular arias
from Samson et Dalila, Carmen and La Favorita.
Halksworth gets an audience in
Come un'ape from Rossini's La Cenerentola
The British Airways theme song,
the Flower Duet from Delibes' Lakme
sung by two Brits!
A scene from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.
Billie Robson, who is also the Artistic Director
of CIO, is devoted to her art as she sings
Puccini's Vissi d'arte (Tosca).
The quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto.
The other half of the Verdian quartet (Rigoletto).
As an encore, Tim Morgan reprised
Handel's Largo, now sounding even better!
The full cast with pianist John Wright (2nd from right).
Cambridge International Opera was presented by the Hong Kong based impresario Christine N Concerts.