An edited version of this review will be published in The Straits Times on 27th Jan 2015.
Esplanade Recital Studio
25 Jan 2015
As the nation celebrates its jubilee year and the pioneer generation with the SG50 events, the
classical music world also celebrates one of the pioneer composers in Singapore, cultural
medallion winner and the late Leong Yoon Pin. His contribution to music was celebrated in a joint
concert by NAFA and the Institute of South East Asian Arts last week, and on Sunday, local
contemporary music group Chamber.Sounds strung together five works for string quartet by three
generations of composers.
The concert opened with works by the third generation composers Lim Tee Heong and Jeremiah
Li. A common thread through these works is the inspiration by tragic events, and most of these had
darker undertones. Lim’s Fading Towards Darkness, written for string trio in 2001 as a response to
the sinking of a Russian submarine a year earlier, was pensive and sorrowful. Led by Nanako
Takata on the violin, the trio milked the earthy, mellow qualities of their instruments in a heart-
Li’s five-movement quartet titled Berliner Partita, evokes scenes and memories of a trip to Berlin.
The trio before was joined by violinist Ng Wei Ping, whose robust and animated playing often
overpowered the quartet. The more joyful outer movements bookended the three sad and tense
middle movements. The first movement had heavy Bachian influences, Li made use of the soulful,
brooding timbre of the cello as a statement of grief in the second movement, and this was brought
out well by James Ng on the cello. The third movement, Li’s personal response of anger and regret
at seeing an underground installation of empty bookshelves signifying the number of books burnt
during Hitler’s reign, teemed with dissonances. Over a constant plucked ostinato from the cello, the
other strings played a sharp-edged, fragmented melody portraying anger, contrasted with long,
bowed lines portraying the feelings of regret. The tremolo in the upper strings provided a desolate
chill at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, and this was dominated by an outstanding violin solo
by Wei Ping. The last movement, the most tonal and cheerful, reflected Christmastime and the
festive markets. Here, Li strung together snippets of Christmas songs, even adding in a humorous
segment at the end where the cellist James feigned drunkeness, playing out of time, only to be
reprimanded by Wei Ping. Throughout the work, Li showcased the versatility of string quartet
writing to set different atmospheres, and this was vividly captured by the quartet.
The second half of the concert was somewhat more positive, and this was evident not only audibly,
but also visually as the quartet had changed to red shirts from the former black in the first half.
Opening the second half was Zechariah Goh Toh Chai’s Valour, written for two violins. Takata
beautifully handled the virtuosic string writing with poise and a quiet confidence, and was soon
joined by the more extravagant Ng in a musical sparring match where imitation and competition
Leong Yoon Pin’s Theme and Variations provided a glimpse of the beginnings of composition in
Singapore, where Leong artfully combined east and west in his unique style. The engaging and
wonderfully authoritative playing from the quartet brought this brief, delightful composition to life.
Ending off the concert was Kelly Tang’s suite from his music to the 2006 Australian feature film
Feet Unbound. At times reminiscent of Philip Glass, and at other times bringing to mind street
scenes with the combination of ethnic modes and catchy underlying rhythms, this picturesque work
featured the quartet at their most balanced, where they breathed together with absolute unanimity
despite their musical differences.
In all, the programming by Chamber.Sounds and the quartet’s efforts in learning and performance
of the music to a high standard in a concert has shown that the celebration of SG50 need not be
extravagant to be meaningful.