June 29, 2015

…and deliver us from… – an interview with new music enthusiast Nicholas Loh

…and deliver us from… – an interview with new music enthusiast Nicholas Loh

Nicholas Loh is one of the most unassuming and talented pianists today, and he attributes that to looking more ‘like the guy who comes to fix aircons or replace empty gas canisters instead’. He has been the featured young virtuoso in the Singapore International Piano Festival in 2009, and has since built up a reputation for being adventurous with his repertoire, picking contemporary and difficult pieces by composers such as Kapustin and Rzewski.
nicholas loh
He is also an advocate of music by Singaporean composers, and has given numerous performances and premieres of contemporary music in Singapore, USA and UK by various Singaporean and overseas composers. Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with the pianist, baritone, and new music enthusiast ahead of his solo recital at the Esplanade, which has the enigmatic title of ‘…and deliver us from…’.

Hello Nicholas, we’re honoured to feature you on Plink, Plonk, Plunk. Let’s first talk about the title. You’ve chosen the very cryptic-sounding ‘…and deliver us from…’. Mind explaining a little more: who is ‘us’, and what and why do the ‘us’ mentioned need delivering from?

Well the whole point of a cryptic-sounding title is to get the audience members thinking for themselves and creating meaning from the experience. I’d hate to prescribe ideas for people to follow, given especially the Singaporean penchant for following instructions to a T and not daring to think beyond the mold. The title makes an obvious reference to a line in the Lord’s Prayer taken from the new testament of the Christian Bible, but the associated allusions are but one interpretation – there are a few other tangents we could run along.
‘Us’ clearly refers to a collective group, be it the audience members present at the concert, the organisers and people who work behind-the-scenes, or the general public at large. The what-and-why of deliverance is even broader in scope and provides much room for personal and objective interpretation (omg how terribly pretentious and post-modern this all sounds!) but the gist of deliverance is to escape a situation that is less-than-desirable and hard to get out of, to be emancipated or liberated. One can think of a number of situations where this might happen – breaking free from the tyranny of the majority, liberation from political pressure or freedom from religious dogma are just some of the more obvious ones one is likely to come across in modern society.

What do you aim to do in programming this recital?

Emancipation from standard repertoire and presenting a recital of unusual pieces is also a form of deliverance. Too often I see programming that is very traditional, very ‘popular’ even. It’s not that I hate the standards – I absolutely adore Bach and Ravel, Beethoven is so meaningful and deep, Albeniz always makes me feel like I’m on a holiday, and who DARES to not love Brahms – but so often at recitals you get an assortment of standards (possibly the only pieces that person is capable of playing at the very moment) placed haphazardly together with an insipid-sounding recital name serving as a tenuous link justifying the performer’s choices. That really isn’t good enough if we want our audiences to become more discerning. I hope to expose and educate our audiences about possibilities beyond what they think is a piano recital, and challenge their sensibilities about music, make them ask questions and learn more about themselves. For that reason, I am rather pleased that the recital at 5pm means time for a post-concert discussion over dinner and drinks!

The works you’ve picked are very possibly all premieres, there is so far no record of Vasks’ Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Rzewski’s De Profundis being played here in Singapore, and Bertram Wee’s a little book of lies was commissioned by you. Do you find it enjoyable to discover and present new pieces to your audience?

Absolutely. More accurately, I find it enjoyable to find pieces and programme them in a way that audiences may never have considered before, and it doesn’t have to be contemporary music per se. I’m hoping to do programmes which feature music that is old but rarely heard (think the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book or Spanish baroque music) and pairing them with more recent compositions. Certain composers like Nikolai Kapustin write very exhilarating music, but it’s not that easy to find pairings with other existing pieces and the challenge is to find repertoire that has synergy. Also, how amazing would it be to end recitals with Bach rather than start with Bach?

Do you try to find and listen to recordings of a piece you would like to play before attempting to play it? How would you approach it if there are no recordings?

Well I knew of the existence of De Profundis through a recording by the composer himself, so that was an easy decision – I wanted to play it. I do not own any recordings of the Vasks (although there are some out there) and I certainly haven’t heard it before. Of course there is no recording of Bertram’s piece either (is this recital going to be the first?). So what do I do? Well a number of things really. First learn the notes (duh) along with all the fiddly bits like dynamics/ articulation/ phrasing etc. It sounds more tedious that what most others might do, which is to learn the notes before adding in the dynamics el al. However, what you then get is a sense of gesture and line which is what you need to convey to the audience. Playing through the music more elucidates the structure and narrative of the work, upon which you decide the appropriate flow your music will take.

Yes this all takes time, but you do need time to let the music germinate within you, to let it mingle with your thoughts and imagination. Some people, one of them being my most recent teacher Stephen Drury, say I learn things fast. I don’t actually think so, because I find I need to give time for a piece to settle within me. Hats off to those artists who can cobble together a convincing performance of something ridiculously hard within a week. That person is not me.

(And yes you do need to read your score along with all the instructions in it. Sounds basic, but many musicians do not read their scores carefully. This is especially prevalent when dealing with standard repertoire – musicians base their playing on a pre-existing recording of some famous, most likely dead at the time of writing this, artist and never break out of that mode of performance. Analysing your score and having a good theoretical foundation will deliver you from the tyranny of recordings!)

You read contemporary music from the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Boston. How does having the knowledge and background help in the interpretation of the works, since these works are all extremely new and constantly evolving?

Maybe I’m being judgmental here, but I don’t think you can be a decent artist if you do not have a strong historical and theoretical foundation, simply because you will not have the means to make informed musical decisions in your playing, and making informed musical decisions happens all the time. I graduated from NEC as a piano major (read: generic) but spent nearly all my time doing contemporary music, and I have to thank the one Stephen Drury for being that tremendously inspiring nutcase artist who manages to be so utterly relaxed and open-minded, yet so intense and challenging at the same time. However, as far as providing my foundation in historical and theoretical understanding goes, I have to credit the University of Birmingham for my undergraduate studies, as well as my time doing ‘A’ level MEP in RJC (thanks Constance Mary and Sirene!), without which I wouldn’t be able to handle the challenges that new music throws at me. Other than that, having an open mind to try things and being discerning about what works (or not) helps as well.

Finally, what do you wish the audience to take home from this recital?

Their programmes and ticket stubs would be a good start! But really, I hope they walk away thinking hard about things they had experienced during the recital. If I have managed to educate and expose them to the world of new music, that’s great. If I have managed to get them to think about social issues beyond the concert hall, that’s great too. If I have managed to set them upon the path of deliverance (from whatever), that might be the best thing happening that evening.

Pianist and new music enthusiast Nicholas Loh returns to the Spectrum series with a recital that explores the complex themes of spirituality, tragedy, irrationality and epiphany. Peteris Vasks’ Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, its title given ironically in reference to Mozart’s famous serenade of the same name, has been described as a requiem for the hope of man of all time and an elegy to Schubert’s Erlking; while Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis is a theatrical piece which requires the pianist to simultaneously play the piano and narrate from a letter that Oscar Wilde wrote while in jail. a little book of lies (world premiere) is Singaporean Bertram Wee’s reflections on the irrational belief-driven violence and prejudice happening in the world, and is dedicated to Nicholas Loh.

Experience a trip deep into the recesses of the human psyche while balancing on the fringe of what might be called a piano recital. Nicholas Loh has appeared as soloist, chamber musician, accompanist and baritone. A versatile musician, he has given numerous performances and premieres of contemporary music in Singapore, UK and USA by various Singaporeans and overseas composers.

Happening this Sunday at 5pm, on the 5th of July 2015 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Don’t miss this chance to catch the Singaporean premieres of Vasks’ and Rzewski’s works, and the world premiere of Singaporean composer Bertram Wee’s work (and also see a big grizzly guy bang on a piano, sing falsetto and make animal noises =P)!

Tickets available from Sistic, with student discounts and discounts for a pair.

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