Thursday, 24 May 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, May 2018)

re:mix  / FOO SAY MING
re:mix #002 / *****

Remember those suites of Beatles hits arranged and dressed up as baroque concerti grossi? Here is a new album of popular songs, golden oldies mixed with more recent ones, performed by the land's leading purveyor of musical nostalgia, the crack string ensemble re:mix led by Singapore Symphony Orchestra first violinist Foo Say Ming.

The two major works are by Hong Kong-based British composer-conductor Dominic Sargent. Sonatina headily brings together the Bee Gees' Night Fever, Lady Gaga's Bad Romance (masquerading as a Mahlerian ländler) and Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. Longer and in five movements is Sonata Latina, which recycles songs like Solamente Una Vez, Quizas Quizas Quizas, Besame Mucho and Desafinado. Whoever thought that Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine's Conga could be spoofed so deliciously as the finale from Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra?

Singaporean arrangers Chen Zhangyi (Chinese evergreens Everlasting Love and Sands Of Sorrow, and the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby) and Derek Lim (Ye Lai Xiang) also get a look in, but by no means a token one. Foo and his charges are totally into this music and they are sumptuously recorded, making this classy trip to yesteryear a most memorable one.  

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Photographs from WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD / The Young Musicians' Foundation Orchestra

The Young Musicians’ Foundation Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Tuesday (22 May 2018)

Of the young orchestras that have sprung up in Singapore over the recent years, The Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra (TYMFO), founded by Darrell Ang and now under the baton of Alvin Seville Arumugam, is one of the more dynamic and promising ones. Its most recent concert demonstrated a level of ambition that is encouraging and more than recommendable.

The Singapore premiere of Toru Takemitsu’s From Me Flows What You Call Time, composed in the 1990s for the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall, was a highlight. A helpful preamble was provided by Arumugam, introducing the main themes of the work and the five percussionists. The performance itself was excellent, with the orchestra carving out a sumptuous sound. The opening flute solo from Alvin Chan, reminiscent of Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi dun faune, was pivotal and it was this theme pervaded the 25-minute long work.

The percussionists, Chaiyaphat Prempree, Tan Lee Ying, Chinnabut Kaewkomin, Lim Xing Hong and Kevin Tan, performed on a wide array of instruments including exotic ones like Trinidadian steel-drums, Tibetan singing bowls, rainstick, angklungs and the piece de resistance, - two sets of chimes strung up from the hall’s high ceiling and controlled by multicoloured cords.

They stole the show with an exuberant display, besides blending in seamlessly with the general ensemble. The music was classic Takemitsu – calming, lush, hushed, even when rising to sonorous climaxes which were never became harsh or strident. This was certainly one of the more significant local premieres in recent years, and kudos especially because it came from a young orchestra (rather than the SSO).    

The longer second work was Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, better known as the “New World Symphony”. This is very familiar and over-exposed music, but the orchestra gave it a good shot and the overall impression was one of freshness and vigour. The introduction was taken at a comfortable pace dictated by conductor Arumugam, and when the actual allegro ensued, it was one of urgency and renewed energy. Control was the key, and there was little risk of the movement being overdone or rising to levels of hysteria.

The opening of the famous Largo was also well-handled by the orchestra’s brass chorale, and Rafika Wiryono’s cor anglais solo was a steady and confident one. There were some solo issues in this and the third movement but that did not diminish the stature of the overall ensemble and playing. The bracing finale with its striding theme provided the final gloss, with the brass again leading the charge to the symphony’s heroic close.

As before and again, TYMFO has come up with a concert that is commendable and true to the spirit of music. Young conductor Alvin Seville Arumugam leads with conviction and dedication, and there is much scope for this young group to further contribute to our burgeoning local musical scene. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2018


Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (20 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 May 2018 with the title "Fast, furious and masterful takes on epic works".

The Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa is no stranger to monster programmes, so it may seem that she showed relative restraint by limiting her most recent recital (her third in Singapore since 2007) to just four works. Yet, these were epics of the repertoire, and she knew exactly how to make them sound big.

First off was Beethoven's Sonata No.23 in F minor (Op.57), better known as the “Appassionata”. The opening was icy and sullen, then came the build-up of huge chords which soon filled the hall with red hot passion, matching the bright shade of her gown. A few wrong notes were tossed off with nonchalance, as nothing would stand in the way of her single-minded steely charge.

The slow movement's theme and variations provided moments of calm respite, before the perpetual motion in the whirlwind finale swept any hint of doubt aside. The next work, Rachmaninov's First Sonata in D minor (op.28), purportedly inspired by the Faust legend, would follow a similar schema except on an even larger scale.

Most pianists take between 35 to 40 minutes to tackle this behemoth, but Lisitsa horse-whipped it to just under 31 minutes. It sounded rushed at parts, especially in the Mephistophelean finale, but there was no mistaking her mastery of its overarching narrative. An ageing but restless Faust (portrayed in the opening movement) was well contrasted with the innocence and tenderness of Gretchen (the slow movement) before the finale's Dies Irae chant-filled onslaught to the abyss.

For the first of three devilish pieces in Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, Lisitsa found a silken and pearly touch for the watery realm of Ondine, before a tidal wave of arpeggios at the end revealed a more malevolent intent. Le Gibet (The Gallows) was coloured with the incessant tolling of a distant bell, a sort of fatal aural balm hypnotically cast in B flat.

In the notorious Scarbo, the suite's most fiendishly difficult movement, she went for broke by tearing through its thorny and barbed thickets. Again it seemed all too fast, with the crossing octaves and chords at the rapturous climaxes coming across like a blur, but the effect was no less gripping. There was a stunned silence before applause rang out unreservedly.

The programme's final work was Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which began with a take-no-prisoners approach for its opening Promenade. Fortunately a more nuanced performance than earlier anticipated unfolded, with a wealth of contrasts and dynamics displayed in the successive movements. However, one would still marvel at the speed and power in Lisitsa's cascading octaves for Baba Yaga's Hut (almost a first cousin of Scarbo) and the concluding Great Gate of Kiev, which brought down the house.     

Ever generous with encores, Lisitsa showered her adoring audience with Liszt's coruscating Second Hungarian Rhapsody and all three movements of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. A standing ovation ensured that no one went home empty-handed.  

Valentina Lisitsa's piano recital was a presentation in the Aureus Great Artists Series.

Monday, 21 May 2018

THE GLORY OF THE BAROQUE / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (18 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 May 2018 with the title "Spirited display of Baroque music".

Local audiences may be forgiven for thinking that baroque music consisted little more than Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Handel's Messiah and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Given recent programming of Singapore Symphony Orchestra's chamber concerts at Victoria Concert Hall, that notion should soon cease. British violinist and conductor Peter Hanson, veteran of the early music movement, has been helping to spearhead this change.

The first of two baroque concerts opened with Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli's Canzon XVI, highlighting the antiphonal qualities in cathedrals where his works were performed. The ensemble was split into three distinct string groups, widely spaced apart, and the effect was no less than gorgeously sonorous. 

Heinrich Ignaz Biber's Battaglia was an early form of programme music, depicting scenes of vivid battle which looked forward to potboilers like Beethoven's Wellington's Victory and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Nine string players were all that was needed to churn up a cacophony of marches, drums and fifes, musket and cannon shots by means of violent pizzicatos, the likes of which 20th century modernist Bartok would have been proud of.  

Cast in G minor were Alessandro Stradella's Overture to La Forza Delle Stelle and Henry Purcell's well-known Chacony. The former began with a serious introduction followed a fugue, while the latter was an archetypal set of short variations on a ground bass. These compositional forms commonly heard in the 17th century were performed with loving care and detail. 

Handel's ubiquitous oratorio Messiah was represented by two arias from young soprano Felicia Teo. She initially had some difficulty in negotiating the dizzying runs and intonation in Rejoice Greatly, but soon settled in He Shall Feed His Flock which better revealed her mellifluous tone. Now warmed up properly, she let loose on Handel's Tornami A Vagheggiar (Return To Me To Languish) from Alcina, a display of vocal athleticism and agility that was very impressive.

The evening closed with two works that highlighted solo instruments supported by a larger group of players. Vivaldi Concerto for Two Violins in A minor (Op.3 No.8) from L'Estro Armonico placed soloists Ye Lin and Xu Jue Yi in the forefront, where their virtuosic parts were able to shine through like beacons over the accompaniment in three movements. Vivaldi was one of music's early violin virtuosos and his music reflected that kind of flair.  

A little more subtle was Handel's Concerto Grosso in G major, Op.6 No.1 where violinists Hanson and Michael Loh, and cellist Guo Hao formed the central concertino group. While less obviously virtuosic, their voices nonetheless stood out from the backing ripieno group. Its five movements were built around a central Adagio where time stood still albeit for a short while. Then, a busy fugue and lively gigue (literally a jig) in triple time closed the concert on a spirited high.

The glory and diversity of the baroque could not have been better served. 

Thursday, 17 May 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, May 2018)

BIS 2312 / *****

British cellist Steven Isserlis has another winner in this album of cello sonatas written during the First World War (1914-1918) by composers from the warring nations. The contrasts are as varied as the composers themselves. 

Two Frenchmen nearing their last years find altogether different inspirations. Claude Debussy's Cello Sonata (1915) seeks a simplicity that defined early French music, and is a gem of brevity in three movements. Gabriel Fauré's Cello Sonata No.1 (1917) has a mellowness and autumnal lyricism that could only have come from the same pen as his famous Requiem of 1890.

Between these is the longest of three sonatas, Englishman Frank Bridge's Cello Sonata (1913-1917). Its two movements are filled with passionate and sometimes violent outbursts which reflect the brutal futility of war. Austrian composer Anton Webern's Three Little Pieces (1914) were chosen as the antithesis. Atonal and aphoristic, these play for just 9, 13 and 10 bars each, barely lasting 3 minutes in total. 

The recital concludes with four short pieces played on a “trench cello” (a compact self-assembled instrument housed within a rectangular case the size of an ammunition box) once owned by war veteran Harold Triggs who carried and played it on the fields of Ypres. 

Its limpid and glassy tone brings a poignancy to Saint-Saëns' The Swan, Hubert Parry's Jerusalem, Ivor Novello's Keep The Home-Fires Burning and God Save The King, which has to be heard to be believed. Isserlis and Canadian pianist Connie Shih serve up an aural treat in this excellent themed recital.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, May 2018)

with Orfeo 55
Erato 0190295765293 / *****

Whenever the subject of “aria antiche” comes up, one invariably thinks of old Italian songs in singing lessons watched over by crusty teachers of a didactic bent. 

French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann completely dispels that notion, breathing fresh new air to 19th century voice pedagogue Alessandro Parisotti's collections of “teaching” songs. Seeking out original contexts of 17 such songs, some from operas, cantatas and others as stand-alone arias, the results are breathtaking.

In Francesco Conti's cantata Doppo tante e tante pene (After So Much Suffering), from which the titular aria Quella Fiamma (The Fire That Burns Me) arises, and one is immediately in awe of Stutzmann's agility and outsized vocal range, especially in the low registers. Handel's Ah! Mio cor, schernito sei (Oh, My Heart, You Are Scorned) from Alcina simply sizzles from the depth of emotion displayed. Also enjoy the variety provided by composers like Scarlatti, Bononcini, Cesti, Caccini and Carissimi among others.

There are also familiar favourites: Martini's Plaisir d'Amour (Pleasures of Love, sung in French), Paisiello's Nel cor piu non mi sento (I No Longer Feel In My Heart) and Se tu m'ami (If You Love Me), once thought to be by Pergolesi, but now attributed to Parisotti himself. Purely orchestral pieces, also conducted by Stutzmann, add to the immense pleasure of this outstanding recital disc.

Monday, 7 May 2018

KAVAKOS PLAYS SHOSTAKOVICH / Singapore Symphony Orchestra Gala / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (5 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times with the title "SSO again displays mastery in Russian music".

The last gala concert in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's 2017-18 season was an all-Russian programme conducted by Shui Lan. The orchestra has had a long love affair with Russian music since its early years under Choo Hoey, and this concert was another demonstration of its mastery in this repertoire.

The atmospheric Prelude to Mussorgsky's unfinished opera Khovanshchina, also called Dawn On The Moscow River, provided an excellent start. Over the hushed tones of violas, Evgueni Brokmiller's flute and Li Xin's clarinet sung a folkloric melody, immediately conjuring an air of melancholy that typified the Russian spirit. A quartet of French horns relived the peal of distant church bells, raising the spectre of Mussorgsky's greatest opera Boris Godunov, but a still calm returned as this mini-epic drew to a quiet close.

While Mussorgsky was Russia's musical conscience in the 19th century, and his modern-day counterpart was Shostakovich, whose First Violin Concerto in A minor has become one of the most performed of 20th century violin concertos. Its first performance had to be suppressed until after Stalin's death. It was thought that music posed dangerous ideas, including promoting dissonance, dissent and defeatism, all taboo in the totalitarian Soviet Union.

These were laid bare in Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos' blistering performance. From the darkest of orchestral openings, Kavakos' crystalline tone shone like shafts of clear moonlight through murky clouds in the 1st movement's Nocturne. Here the night was synonymous with bleakness and unease, in particular the fear and dread of that knock on the door after midnight.

Shostakovich lived a life of chronic gloom, and even if his music sometimes appeared cheerful, it was invariably dripping with vitriol. Kavakos' searing and lancinating solo led the way in the Scherzo, which highlighted the bassoon for comic relief and also quoted the composer's own initials DSCH (D-E flat-C-B natural) as a personal stamp.

The 3rd movement's moving Passacaglia and the final Klezmer-charged Burlesque was not just about Kavakos' astounding and free-wheeling virtuosity, but also how well Shui and his orchestra responded to its enormous challenges in partnership. Shouts of bravo were silenced by Kavakos' antithetical encore, a lightly ornamented reading of the Sarabande from J.S.Bach's Partita No.2.

Tchaikovsky's First Symphony in G minor, or “Winter Daydreams”, closed the evening on yet another high. Although one of his less popular symphonies, it is still filled with his trademarks – sumptuous melodies, bracing climaxes and an underlying neurosis. All of these surfaced in the 1st movement, which was a constant battle between tension and relaxation.

An aural lusciousness shone through in the slow movement, with muted strings matched by exquisite solos from oboe, flute and bassoon. Bringing to mind some of Tchaikovsky's best ballet music, this and the 3rd movement's Scherzo also featured the best playing. The finale's success was all about building up to a terrific climax, and this was delivered with absolute panache.


Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (4 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 May 2018 with the title "Enlightening performance led by director's clear vision".

Singapore's premier professional chamber ensemble, re:Sound, continues to grow from strength to strength. One of its secrets is to work with a different leader/director every concert, and the results are fresh and different each time. Its latest guest director was the Ukrainian-British violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, well-known for his work with renowned period instrument ensembles like the Academy of Ancient Music, New London Consort and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Enlighten the audience he did in a programme of mostly 18th century music, familiar and obscure. How often has one heard a Handel concerto grosso here in a live performance? Exactly. In Handel's G major Concerto Grosso (Op.6 No.1), he led the 13-member string group from his violin, and the sound was sleek and transparent through its five short movements.

Although the players do not perform on antique instruments, it was the approach by Beznosiuk which relived the spirit of the baroque. Vibrato was minimised, textures were light, but not light-weight and tempos lively, rather than merely fast. That each movement swung like a dance was the intention, and the overall results were impressive.

Also rarely heard was Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major, a curious hybrid between symphony and concerto that was once a popular compositional form. Even more curious was the combination of solo instruments employed, including violin (Beznosiuk), cello (Robert Choi), oboe (Tay Kai Tze) and bassoon (Zhang Jin Min).

The 1st movement's martial air was provided by the orchestra's two trumpets, two French horns and timpani, but the quartet of soloists held its own with delightful interplay and a showy cadenza. The slow movement opened with violin and bassoon in conversation, a testament to Haydn's ingenuity and the finale's humour bubbled over. There was a passage where solo cello echoed the solo violin, as if saying “whatever you can do, I can do just as well”. 

The concert's second half was dedicated to Beethoven's Second Symphony in D major of 1802, an early work with the German beginning to overflex his creative muscles. Now seated, Beznosiuk still towered over his charges with his clearly defined directions dominating the performance. The opening notes were emphatic, and the slow introduction deliberately building into something special.

When the Allegro finally came, it was with a joyous surge of energy. Here was the true meaning of brio, a vitality that is natural and never forced. By contrast, the slow movement was graceful, chirping woodwinds singing over elegant svelte strings. The ensuing Scherzo hinted at a joke, but with Beethoven this meant providing surprises for the listener, such as catchy three-note phrases and springing unexpected changes in rhythm and dynamics.

Similarly, the finale was delivered with ebullience, with more humour shining through. The encore gave a clue to Beethoven's inspiration, the animated Minuet movement from Haydn's last symphony (No.104, also in D major). Can one hope for more of the same from Beznosiuk's next re:Sound concert?