November 27, 2015

Musings of an Artiste – a review


Musings of an Artiste
Esplanade Recital Studio
12 November 2015, 1930hrs

With such a title as ‘Musings of an Artiste’ and a poster with a dark background showing the artiste deep in thought (musing, presumably), one almost expects the repertoire to be big, heavy works of the 19th-century, where artist(e)s were admired, put on a pedestal, and revered as idols. The stage, too, was set to reflect a 19th-century style salon, with flowers underneath the piano and in large vases behind.

Instead, what a surprise it was when the repertoire turned out to be three sonatas from the Classical period, bordering on the cusp of Romanticism and in the key of E-flat major.

Haydn’s Sonata Hob. XVI:49 which opened the evening was a delightfully witty and light, peppered with contrasting moments of drama. The drama was brought out further in the Les Adieux sonata, written by Beethoven in expression of farewell to a dear friend the archduke Rudolph. Before playing, Lim gave an account of how he was given this work to learn when he first went to UK, as his teachers thought he could identify with the separation from his family and home. Revisiting this sonata, he gave a highly poetic and wonderfully detailed account of it, never letting the drama get the better of the structure and without over-the-top expression.

The 4-movement Sonata D.568 by Schubert which followed was a tribute to Ms Lim Tshui Ling, his former teacher. In it, Lim immersed the audience into the fluid, ever-changing harmonies of Schubert’s sound world, deftly navigating the delicate key changes. The opening Allegro had a dancing lilt to it, and the hushed pianissimos in the andante molto offered a warmth that was almost ethereal.

Although the absence of programme notes was evident at the start of the concert, Lim skilfully wove programme notes into his preambles before and in between pieces, making the evening more intimate and showing a side of the artiste that one doesn’t often see with other performers.

The dramatic and passionate side of Lim finally broke through in his encore of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op 23 no. 5; and since the key of E-flat major was the thread linking up the entire programme, ‘it would be a little perverse not to end the evening in E-flat major’, Lim quipped, and polished off Rachmaninoff’s Prelude op 23 no. 6 in understated virtuosity.


This recital was presented by Kris Foundation.

October 27, 2015

An interview with composer-conductor Eric Watson


Landscapes pic

Eric Watson can order his Kopi C Kosong in fluent Singlish, writes music for Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnic instruments, and has lived here long enough to fit into the Singaporean landscape. Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with him ahead of the Spectrum concert he presents at the Esplanade Recital Studio where he programmed, composed, wrote programme notes, and conducts the YST Conservatory New Music Ensemble.

EW interview picture

1/You chose the programme, wrote the programme notes, wrote a piece and will be conducting this concert. Could you tell us what you had in mind when putting the programme together? 

There were actually two ideas I had in mind: one was that alternate points of view, when we encounter them, can actually be sometimes quite startling – I’m not talking about someone else’s point of view, but your own point of view – it’s like when you see a tree from a different angle, sometimes it seems like it’s a completely different tree but it’s not, it’s the same tree. It’s a totally different angle, perhaps the light is different, or even the sound is different – there are birds on one side and not on the other – so that sort of alternative point of view has always fascinated me. Also, the same stories that could have different endings, I find that quite fascinating. It was partly with the tree analogy in mind that I called [the concert] Landscapes.

The other thing I had in mind was that I wanted to feature some music that came from the group of composers that were active after the Cultural Revolution: Zhou Long, Chen Yi, Bright Sheng.. That’s why those two pieces came to be there. Again, partly because they’d been in isolation during the Cultural Revolution, for me that was an interesting perspective to see what might actually come out of that.

2/ let’s talk about your piece Inner Landscapes : it deals with changes in perspective. Could you tell us a bit more about how you wrote it and what you had in mind when writing it? 

Well Inner Landscapes is the inner landscapes of the mind, in this particular case. I’ve spoken to many people about how they think, what they think, and it’s interesting just because of how different those processes can be. Some people do actually think linearly, but I think majority of people think in a sometimes disjointed, rather haphazard manner on the surface – it’s not necessarily unconnected because I think there are subconscious forces at work – and that process has also always fascinated me, it’s like the ‘stream of consciousness’ idea that you encounter during James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance. The whole last part of the book is basically a stream of consciousness of ideas floating through the surface, disappearing, and then coming back in another form, perhaps something else, certainly transmuted.

The analogy I can give with Inner Landscapes is that in the opening fanfare, a typical, ritualistic fanfare in a sense, becomes by the end of the piece, a rhythmic pulse in the background of what else is happening. And ten minutes later that’s the link between the ending and the beginning.

But when I set out to write it, I didn’t know that it was going to happen. Over the period of the piece, the fanfare began to transform itself, and at one point, the composition started to have a life of its own. This happens to me most of the times in writing, and I look forward to that point because then, I get nice surprises, sometimes not so nice surprises… A lot of the time it picks up a life of its own and for me, it’s become a kind of living thing in itself… then it’s kind of like Franz Liszt’s thematic transformations where something becomes something else?

 Well yeah, that’s right. And sometimes it’s very difficult to see where the end result actually came from; but I’ve done this enough times and studied enough composers’ works to realise that this is very much a part of the creative process.

 3/Speaking of perceptions, have you changed your perceptions on life and music as you grew up?

Yes I hope I’ve changed my perceptions as I’ve grown up a bit!

Actually yes. When I was a student, for instance, I was listening to a lot of what was called avant-garde music. It still is avant-garde music now, but it tends to refer to that particular period of time then. I was listening to composers and talking to them, like Stockhausen, and going to concerts, and there was an awful lot of new music I was actually hearing.

But gradually over a period of time, my ideas of what I was listening to, and what I was enjoying as a listener began to change. After some years I looked back (I actually stopped composing for a while, because it brought me to a halt, I couldn’t sort of feel where I was), and actually then, some years later, I thought to myself one day that the process that goes on exists in several different ways – perceptions again!

You often have the professional observers – critics, the historians and musicologists – making predictions saying, ‘this should be this way, and that should be that way’, I look back and I think, not much of that has actually happened in the way that it was expected to be. And of course I began to understand that there were forces – subterranean forces, if you like (sounds a bit sinister, doesn’t it) – that work that, composers, creative artists, just simply have their own creativity that compels a direction different from what could be expected. But I’ve learnt to be comfortable about it in the end, rather than sit up and think, ‘oh, I shouldn’t be doing it this way, because this is not the right type of music that 21st century composers should be listening to’, and I’ve heard this attitude before several times. But now I’ve gotten quite comfortable with it and my music shows it, probably to a very large extent.

In the end, I wanted to communicate – I didn’t want to just have a small band of followers whom my music spoke to and nobody else – so that was an important part of my creative process.

 4/And how have your perceptions changed also since moving to Singapore from UK?

When I came to Singapore, what I discovered was – it sounds strange, but – an iceberg. What I mean by that was that I’d started exploring a little bit of gamelan music when I was in the UK and a little bit of music coming of other cultures. Not a lot, but enough to get intrigued.

When I came to Singapore, that was when I discovered the rest of the iceberg, because you know that the tip of the iceberg is usually one-fifth of what you actually see, whereas the rest is huge and there and quite dangerous, and you don’t see it. That’s what happened with Singapore. It’s all there, and I’ve discovered it and it’s dangerous because it’s made me really think outside the perimeters we’re used to.

Now I’ve encountered gamelan in a very whole-hearted fashion, but also Indian music, and Chinese music, various kinds, and I don’t necessarily mean only the orchestral music which goes back only to the last 100 years, but I’m talking also about Nanyin music which goes back such a long time. The tradition of small ensembles as well – chamber music-making – particularly in Chinese music but also Indian music and other areas too. So that’s what Singapore has done, it’s opened all that up to me. But whether in the end I’m successful or not, in those directions, I guess time will tell.

5/ You have won some awards so time has told something – you’ve been quite successful in mixing the instruments of Indian, Chinese and Malay music.. but I wonder about jazz. You used to play jazz piano..

 Yes, it’s true. For a long time I earned my living working in musical theatres as conductors and director. And of course I’d encounter all kinds of musicals, literally from the Sound of Music to Jesus Christ Superstar, those are two extremes. And of course there’s a great variety of styles of music within all of that.

So that inevitably has become a part of what I am, because I actually quite a lot of things – I really do like theatre music, you know, it’s still for me, an excitement: I go to a musical and hear the orchestra start up and I get all excited, it’s like a little boy in a sweet shop!

 6/ what inspires you besides theatre music and the new fangled instruments that you’ve learnt about? 

So many things, really. Natural phenomenon, in the sense of landscape for instance, like the sky… I’ve just written a piece called Constellations inspired by, literally, constellations.. so all that kind of natural phenomena inspires me. But sometimes, just walking along a road it can be the edge of a corner of a building, and I think, my word, that is really quite nice, or sometimes quite ugly too! I forgot which city it was – I’m not going to malign anybody here but I’ll say it wasn’t Singapore – I was in some city and I saw some kind of institute of architects’ building, and it struck me as the ugliest building I’ve ever seen in my life! It was literally a square box! and I thought, ‘what are they doing, these architects?!’

So lots of things inspire me. Literature does, certainly. But whatever it is that inspires me, at some point, has got to engender some kind of emotion within me. quite often it’s simply wonder at first, but emotion is a communicator, not just to communicate to others but quite often, to communicate to ourselves.

Music, if it doesn’t communicate, for me then really lives in an ivory tower. And I don’t like it.

Many things inspire me but normally whatever it is, art, photography, literature, nature  or just ‘doodling’ stirs something in me emotionally, not necessarily in a pleasant or ‘romantic’ manner after all disgust is also a strong emotion, but whatever it is it gets me thinking and feeling.

7/ if you had to describe your music in less than 10 words, what would it be? 

Eclectic is probably the best way. I do actually sometimes change styles and feel in pieces that I’m going about.. but it’s not inconsistent.

Also my music tends to be, in new music terms, reasonably approachable to people on the whole. Not always, because sometimes I do get times where I start thinking to myself, ‘I can’t express this in any way except in a way that it’s difficult to listen to; because that’s what it is about. but for the most part, I do try to write things that people could understand at some level. And I don’t think that’s writing down, that’s not what I want to do at all. It’s the same when I’m using ethnic instruments as well – I don’t try to write Chinese music or gamelan music using the instruments.. I use that sound world as a resource and try to write my music. I don’t want to imitate other things because other people do it far better anyway.

Sorry that was far longer than 10 words wasn’t it?

8/Finally, one last question – Why should people come to this concert?

Well because it’s an enjoyable experience. They might find the contrast themselves quite interesting and amazing, and perhaps will just get some insight on an area which is perhaps not quite as well known as it should be.

And actually this is music of our day, you know, there‘s an awful lot of music that doesn’t belong to our century – we play it a lot and it’s very magnificent and all – but this is music that comes from the world that we are living in, at this time. So I think it’s an important for that reason.

Landscapes by Eric Watson and the YST Conservatory New Music Ensemble happens this Sunday, 1 Nov 2015 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Come and witness the breath-taking, ever-shifting landscapes in music! Buy your tickets here now!

Landscapes is part of Spectrum, an Esplanade Presents programme.

October 2, 2015

War and Peace: Singapore International Festival of Music


The inaugural Singapore International Festival of Music, brainchild of conductor Darrell Ang and violinist Loh Jun Hong, opened last Saturday with a concert themed after the festival theme ‘War and Peace’. Comprising mostly luminaries in the classical scene, musicians, composers, and patrons of the arts, the half-filled Chamber had good acoustics for a chamber concert (pardon the pun). As history was made in that room before (the Chamber used to be the place where parliament sessions took place), history was being made the very evening with the festival.
Lee Chor Lin, CEO of the Arts House, spoke in the opening address of her recent trip to Berlin and about how the city remembers history by naming roads and building monuments; she then likened it to how SIFOM sets out to remember our history with a music festival – because music gives hope in despair and a way out of desperation. Festival co-director Darrell Ang then made an appearance, speaking about the need for Singapore to have her own international music festival that would put Singapore on the world map of musical cities; after all Singapore has a huge talent pool of capable musicians who have been trained both locally and overseas.

The opening work featured festival co-director Loh Jun Hong as soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5. The three works on the programme were tied together by the theme of historical wars, and the Mozart was featured because of the ‘Turkish’ section in the third movement where Mozart parodied the invasion of the loud, bawdy Turks. Loh was stellar as always, collected and confident, with his quicksilver sound. The gentleness of the adagio gave way to the amiable rondo third movement. Loh plunged into the swaggering, stomping Turkish section with aplomb, his instinctive mastery of the bow was evident from the way he switched between the sections.

Perhaps it was because the musicians were standing while the two speeches were being made, or because the orchestra was recently-assembled that they were slightly askew in accompanying Loh. The horns, in particular, did not blend well with the rest of the ensemble. A classical work is a litmus test of any chamber orchestra, and one can tell the chemistry of an ensemble by observing the way they interact with each other and the conductor. As much as all of the musicians were handpicked to form the ensemble, they were more intent on following the conductor than interacting and listening to each other.

However, conductor Marlon Chen held the ensemble together well, and they gave sparkling performances of Britten’s Sinfonietta and Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. The ensemble opted for the 1932 version of the Sinfonietta – smaller, one instrument per part set-up – which worked well to their advantage. Britten’s picturesque scoring was brought to life in its minute detail; the instruments dovetailing subtly into one another. Especially memorable were the duet for two violins in the Variations, and the impressive restraint in the build-up to the Tarantella that did not overrun into uncontrollable frenzy.

Even in the Stravinsky, the ensemble gave a detailed account of the neo-classical work, always ensuring that there was clarity, but not to the point of being pedantic or prescriptive. Chen knew the score inside out, and the musicians responded right on cue. What he didn’t know that well, however, was the history and context of the music. As much as the committee tried to make the concert informal by having Chen introduce the pieces, his short introductions sounded rehearsed and almost forced.

Nevertheless, it was a good start to what looks like an exciting festival ahead. Happening tonight is the music of Vienna written in years of intervening peace but with impending war looming in the background. Featuring popular works like Haydn’s Emperor Quartet, Beethoven’s Twelve Variations for Cello & Piano in G major on Handel’s
“See, the Conqu’ring Hero comes,” and Schubert’s Trout Quintet, be sure not to miss this one! 7.30pm, Chamber @ The Arts House.

September 21, 2015

Singapore International Festival of Music – Singapore’s first classical music festival


sheep is proud to be the festival blogger for the Singapore International Festival of Music!

sifom sheep

the inaugural Singapore International Festival of Music is what Singapore has lacked for some time: an entire festival of classical music by homegrown musicians, to celebrate how far the classical music scene has come, and also celebrate Singapore talent. as Singapore celebrates her Jubilee, what better time to launch an all-Singaporean music festival by local musicians?

chamber music is the focus of this year’s edition; the theme War and Peace examines the world’s great wars and the great music that was the result of them. it also looks at the moments of peace that led to fine music, building the foundation  for music to develop.

chamber music is meant to be performed in an intimate setting, which the Arts House venues create with audience and performers sharing the same space, a close proximity not unlike that of story-telling by a fireplace. the barrier between performer and audience is also broken as performers will share more about the music before each performance, and audience members are encouraged to speak to the performers about the works and the concert.

six programmes of chamber music, along with two homecoming recitals will showcase Singapore’s best talents, all making music for a common purpose.

War and Peace opens the festival, with a programme of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 played by Loh Jun Hong, which includes a section of Turkish music, Mozart’s reference to the historic ‘Battle of Vienna’ when the Ottoman Turks besieged the city. also on the programme is Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks”, the last work he wrote in Europe before leaving for the USA to escape impending war. Britten’s Sinfonietta Op. 1 was written around the same time, where Hitler’s nomination as Chancellor of Germany set the stage that would jeopardise world peace.

conducted by Marlon Chen, and played by excellent musicians who are soloists in their own right, join SIFOM as they bring you through moments where history made music at 7.30pm on Saturday, 26 September 2015.

for a full listing of their programmes and the background to their festival, look up their pretty cool website here. Get your tickets here 🙂

August 6, 2015

Tell Me The Truth About Love – an evening of song by Lee Pei Xin and Wong Yun Qi

Tell Me The Truth About Love – an evening of song by Lee Pei Xin and Wong Yun Qi

It’s been nearly a year since their successful recital ‘Could this be death?’ last year (read review here), and this time, soprano Cheryl Lee Peixin and pianist Wong Yun Qi have something up their sleeves again, promising to be just as amazing as their recital before. Better still, it’s absolutely free of charge, and features an accessible concert-programme, specially aimed at first-time concert goers, yet not dumbed-down such that seasoned music-lovers will also find their programme a treat.


Just what really is love – is it that heady rush of anticipation, with butterflies in the stomach and stars in our eyes? Would the world be complete in its presence, and strangely empty when it takes off and leaves? Is it hiding in the shadows of the forest woodlands, at the Eiffel Tower, or in a room as red as wine? Can it be found with the ice cream man, the women in the windows, and the next-door neighbour?

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “There are many kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice.” Join the duo as they unravel this mystery which has intrigued so many.

This concert features songs about love as told by Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Benjamin Britten and William Bolcom; inspired by Rückert, Dehmel, Auden, Weinstein and many others.

This concert happens on Thursday, the 20th of August 2015, from 1930-2130hrs, at the Lee Foundation Theatre, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Campus 3 (151 Bencoolen Street, Singapore 189656).

Register here for your seats, and don’t forget to bring a friend or two!

Photo Peixin_Yun Qi

Cheryl Lee Peixin studied under Martin Klietmann, Joseph Breinl and Robert Heimann in Graz, Austria. She has performed as a soloist with Ornamentum Wien, chamber ensemble of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and given several premieres of works by local composer, Americ Goh. She sang in the world premiere of Dmitri Kourliandski´s opera Asteroid 62 at the contemporary music festival Musikprotokoll des Steirischen Herbstes.

Wong Yun Qi completed her Masters Program in Hannover, Germany under the tutelage of Jan Philip Schulze, Martin Brauß and Zvi Meniker. She is currently based in Hannover as a lied accompanist and collaborative pianist. Highlights of this season include performing at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival.

July 14, 2015

Upcoming concerts – 3 x 3, Lim Yan


It is sometimes good to be spoilt for choice, but in the case of this thursday evening, with two concerts put up by excellent local musicians, I’m wishing that they didn’t happen at the same time so I wouldn’t have to miss either.

3 x 3: Three Musicians. Three Masterworks. Three Liaisons.
3 x 3 sees flautist Roberto Alvarez, cellist Leslie Tan and pianist Teo Li-Chin in a chamber concert, presenting three masterworks: the monumental sonatas by Franck and Prokofiev, along with a seldom-heard trio by Kuhlau.

Kuhlau’s Trio Op. 119 was the very last work he wrote. He was said to be the Beethoven of flute composition. This light and charming work encompasses the true identity of Viennese Classicism. The emotions and madness of war manifest themselves in the complex harmonies, forceful rhythms, and thick textures of Sergei Prokofiev’s second sonata for flute and piano; and Franck’s famous sonata for cello and piano takes the listener on a spiritual journey, exposing the listener to the beauty of harmony, richness of emotion, and a glorious celebration of joy.

Join SOTA faculty members as they excite and inspire with these masterworks on the 16th of July 2015, Thursday, 7:30pm at the SOTA Concert Hall.

Tickets are available online at $25 each ( concessions for students are available at $10) and are also available for purchase at the door.

Also happening on the same evening is a piano recital by one of Singapore’s brightest pianists, Lim Yan, as part of the VCH@SG50 series.

Lim Yan VCH SG50

Lim Yan is no stranger to Plink, Plonk, Plunk or the music scene here. Having played the entire Beethoven concerto cycle over three concerts in two weeks in 2012 and the Brahms violin sonatas in concert sometime last year, the Young Artist Award winner brings two familiar works from Beethoven: the Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 27 No. 1 and the ‘Eroica’ Variations, whose theme was also featured in the finale of Beethoven’s Third Symphony; a work ‘Rollercoaster Ride’ by Singaporean composer Liong Kit Yeng; and the ever popular yet enigmatic Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, a piece dedicated to Robert Schumann which is notable for its revolutionary musical form.

Tickets available from Sistic at $18.

If classical music is not your thing, fret not, and head over to the Esplanade where Jazz in July continues to happen. Join Maya Nova at the concourse and the Havana Social Club playing at the Outdoor theatre 🙂

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.

May 29, 2015

Quinnuance Review

Quinnuance Review

photo credits: Daniel Neo, The Straits Times

Quinnuance is grateful to everyone who came to our concert on the 27th of May, lighting designer Reuben Ong, all musicians, and the crew of Esplanade for making this concert a successful one. Read the review by Dr Chang Tou Liang here.

May 18, 2015

Upcoming chamber music concerts


Next week sees an exciting week of chamber music happening at the Esplanade Recital Studio, with a selection of rarely/never-heard quintets by Nordic composers, fusion jazz/anime/film music, and contemporary music. Plink, Plonk, Plunk picks: don’t miss out on these three concerts!


24 May 2015 – Take 5 Piano Quintet: Northern Lights

take 5 publicity

Explore the mystical lands of Scandinavia in chamber works written for piano quintet by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and Norwegian composer Christian Sinding. At once grand, intimate and emotional, these pieces evoke the majestically bleak landscapes of the region.
Sinding’s Piano Quintet in E Minor premiered in 1889 and created a sensation by breaking many of the rules of traditional composition. His composition influenced Sibelius to compose Piano Quintet in G Minor the following year, a piece that anticipates his famous orchestral works.
Tickets go at $25, and can be bought at Sistic.


25 May 2015 – Tze Toh: Land with No Sun, PR0MEMOR1A 

Jazz pianist and composer Tze Toh presents a mainly-piano concert that pushes boundaries of piano music, bringing together not only various genres from jazz, film score, fusion, classical, Anime soundtracks to the orchestral and textural, but also combines “live” piano performance with sound design.


He has dreamt up a storyline of a futuristic city of 2050 where, because of pollution, humans live in sky-cities because the earth is no longer suitable for living in. Artificial mechanical lifeforms known as Archivists observe and collect data on human beings daily – the memories and dreams. They were built into our new system/society to logically maintain order and progress – a fail-safe to prevent future global conflicts like the last war that devastated the planet, and drove Man from the Earth’s surface to seek a new Utopia in the skies.  In this concert, a sequel to his Land With No Sun concert featured earlier, Tze continues to explore themes/issues that affect our world today such loss of natural environments, impact of technology on human evolution and society etc. through his performance.
Joining him are violinists Christina Zhou and Gabriel Lee.
Tickets are available at Peatix at $25, student concessions at $18 available.
27 May 2015 – Quinnuance: Refracting Rituals
When one tries to combine both terms, to refract a ritual, and pass it through a thought process so that it comes out different on the other side, what happens?
Join Quinnuance as they ponder upon life and music in Refracting Rituals to present an evening of varying perspectives.
Quinnuance has been featured in The Straits Times! It erroneously labels Clarence and me as composers, and i’m afraid the only compositions i write for them are made up of words, not music…
ST 14 May Quinnuance Preview

So join the real composers of Quinnuance – Alicia, Bernard, Lu Heng and Terrence, along with our conductor Clarence, and musician friends for an evening of music-making: who knows what you’ll discover?

Tickets at $25 from Sistic or the Esplanade box office!

April 17, 2015

Masterclass notes from Harpsichordist, Pianist and Organist Masato Suzuki

Masterclass notes from Harpsichordist, Pianist and Organist Masato Suzuki

photo credits: Marco Borggreve

Harpsichordist, pianist and organist Masato Suzuki is in Singapore to play an organ recital at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Sunday, 19th April, as part of the Tapestry of Sacred Music festival, now in its 7th year running. The Esplanade organised a private masterclass for the students at SOTA this afternoon, and what a privilege it was to be able to attend.

Suzuki started off the masterclass by playing the beginning of J. S. Bach’s Italian Concerto (bb. 1-27), first on the harpsichord, then on the grand piano, interpreting both versions very differently. On the harpsichord, he demonstrated an over legato technique (which he later explained) of connecting the notes two by two using the third and fourth fingers. On the grand piano, however, he played around with the articulation, using staccato, dynamics and other devices. He also showed how much more cumbersome and difficult it was to use the over-legato technique on the piano.

He involved the students in an improvisation exercise where he took the most famous of ground basses from Pachelbel but modulated to F major, and got the SOTA students to improvise over the repeated bass. Each student had a turn to play an improvisation, something the students were clearly not used to doing at all!

Moving on, Suzuki covered a very brief history of the harpsichord and its music, explaining that the 16th-century harpsichords were smaller in size than the one he was playing on in SOTA, but had a bigger sound. Moving briefly onto organs, he mentioned that the organs were used as often as and interchangeably with harpsichords. The early organ, called blockwerk, was capable of playing the same note in various different octaves all sounding at the same time.

He then demonstrated passages on the harpsichord from the earliest 14th-century manuscript of keyboard music, known as the Robertsbridge Codex, explaining that in those earliest times there was no time signature and the meter of the music kept varying between three, four and two main beats. Playing just the opening on the grand piano, he doubled the octaves and added more percussive articulation, something he said he always wanted to try but was “very difficult to do” because the music was so fast!

All through the masterclass, Suzuki was a great advocate of improvising baroque music, especially when playing it on the piano. “When you play old works like Scarlatti or Rameau on the piano, be very free with the music, because what you are doing is a variation of the original,” he stresses. He advocates improvisation because the music written was written before the invention of the piano anyway, so anything the pianist did on the piano would be a variation of what was originally conceived. Besides, the piano has infinite possibilities of articulation and dynamic variations to explore.

Leaving us with one final example, he played his own transcription of the famous Bach chorale “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” BWV 140, getting a student to play the inside voice. Likening baroque music to jazz, he explained the concept of notes inégales (french for unequal notes), playing bits of the chorale once more, with the emphasis on unequal notes. Ending off his session, he continually encouraged students to try improvising in their playing, “even on stage and in competitions” for a change!

How often does one get to hear the glorious, magnificent Klais pipe organ in the Esplanade Concert Hall? Join renowned Japanese conductor and organist Masato Suzuki as he takes audiences on a journey across the centuries in an exploration of familiar favourites and hidden gems of the organ repertoire. One of the highlights of the programme will include a selection of organ works based on Buddhist chants that were composed for the first pipe organ in Japan that was housed in a Buddhist temple.

Happening on Sunday, 19th April at 3pm, at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Admission is free!

tapestry banner

This concert is co-produced by Suntory Hall, Tokyo.

April 1, 2015

On making stuff up on the spot, and Beethoven’s fantasy ending with a musical slap across the face – Interview with Scottish virtuoso pianist Kenneth Hamilton

On making stuff up on the spot, and Beethoven’s fantasy ending with a musical slap across the face – Interview with Scottish virtuoso pianist Kenneth Hamilton

Warning: the following post could be offensive to the fans of Donizetti and Gounod…

Professor Kenneth Hamilton of Cardiff University is here in Singapore to play his annual concert. This year’s offering is a whole recital of piano fantasies from various composers. Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with him to find out his thoughts….and fantasies.

Hello Prof. Hamilton, and welcome back yet again! This concert has ‘piano fantasies’ as its theme, and you’ve picked out a programme of mostly 19th-century works, although some are based on earlier ones. Can you briefly walk us through the history of writing fantasies for piano?

Well, the fantasy was originally connected with improvisation. Up until the middle of the 19th-century, if you heard a pianist perform solo, the chances are that he (and it usually was a he) would be offering some sort of improvised fantasy, rather than the sonatas or studies or whatever that we usually hear nowadays. And fantasising was more or less the only type of playing that was undertaken without reading from a printed score.

Our modern practice of memorising almost everything hadn’t yet taken hold, so there was a firm contrast between fantasising—playing freely without music—and playing from the music. It was only with the growth of a standard repertoire of musical masterworks—Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin nocturnes etc.– that pianists started to play almost exclusively “ready-written” music, rather than just making things up as they went along. And of course, they then also started to memorise these pieces, which preserved something of the impression that the music was being spontaneously invented, but at a much higher level of inspiration. It’s very difficult to maintain rigorous quality control when you’re simply making things up on the spot!

Of course, composers would also publish fantasies too, and these are the sorts of pieces I’ll be playing at the Esplanade this Sunday (5 April). Published fantasies were expected to retain some of the more spontaneous and uncontrolled elements of improvised fantasies—and you can certainly hear that in the Beethoven op.77, or even the Chopin Polonaise-Fantasy—but with a higher level of invention. In other words, only the better stuff would be published, and the rest would be left languishing in the mists of time.

Bach wrote a few fantasies, including the more famous Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue.. Any reason you didn’t include Bach in your repertoire this year – was it because of an entire Bach programme last year?

Exactly right. I’ve just recorded last year’s Bach programme too—the CD will be released next month on the Prima Facie label, so I felt it was time for something different. However, you might consider the Liszt “Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s Almira” as something of a sequel to last year’s programme: first Bach, then a bit of Handel…

Let’s talk a bit more about the Beethoven Op. 77 fantasy. On first listening it sounds extremely fragmented, and even disorderly. Czerny passes it off as ‘an improvisation’, von Lenz calls it ‘a Medieval drama’, and going even further, Tovey, perhaps more imaginative, mentions that the opening scales and its following cadence is ‘a note of interrogation’ and then ‘an expression of resigned hopelessness’; he further mentions that the passages are ‘questions and efforts’. What’s your take on it? Was it too new for its time, having a higher and more profound thought that no one understands, or was it Beethoven’s way of being mischievous and throwing a curve at his audience?

The Beethoven is a fascinating piece. According to his friend and student Ignaz Moscheles, it is typical of his “rhapsodical and eccentric” style of improvisation. It may even be a written out (and no doubt revised) version of a fantasy that he improvised during a long concert in 1808, when he also gave the first public performance of the 4th Piano Concerto. I played the 4th Concerto myself last week (with the Welsh Sinfonia), so it seemed appropriate to offer the Fantasy in Singapore. Basically, the first half of the piece is a fairly bad-tempered search for a decent tune. Various melodies are tried out, and pitilessly rejected. When Beethoven finally finds something that suits him, he invents a series of whimsical variations on it, then gets fed up with the whole rigmarole and ends the piece with the musical equivalent of a slap across the face.

It’s a strange and entertaining piece—but it isn’t entirely unique in Beethoven’s output. Amazingly enough, the enormous “Ode to Joy” choral movement of the 9th Symphony follows exactly the same procedure (admittedly without the slap across the face). This explains Czerny’s otherwise puzzling comment that the last movement of the 9th is “like a Fantasy”.

Schumann’s Fantasy has a link between Beethoven and Liszt: He quotes a phrase from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte in the first movement, and the second and third movements were written with the intention of raising money for a Beethoven monument. As we know, this Fantasy was dedicated to Liszt, and eventually the monument was completed due to a huge donation from Liszt. Did Liszt influence the composition of this in any way?

Liszt’s music didn’t influence the Fantasy—the dedication was more of a tribute to a friend and supporter than anything else,. Much later, Liszt dedicated his Sonata in B minor to Schumann in return. But the Fantasy is heavily influenced by a Nocturne written by Schumann’s future bride Clara. In fact, the opening tune of the first movement is a fusion of the theme of Clara’s nocturne with fragments of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved). The message is simple: Clara was Schumann’s own “distant beloved”; distant both physically, because they were apart at the time he first conceived the movement, and metaphorically because her father was refusing them permission to marry. Fragments of Clara’s and Beethoven’s themes run through the other two movements of the fantasy too, and originally Schumann ended the entire piece with a further quote from “To the distant beloved”. I’ll be playing this original version next Sunday. To my mind, it makes for a much more satisfying conclusion. In addition to the “distant beloved” quote, Beethoven fans might also be able to spot allusions to his Sonata op.101 in the first two movement of the Fantasy, and to the slow movement of the 7th Symphony in the last!

Liszt is pretty famous for taking others’ works and making them his own by writing the themes into fantasies or paraphrases. This is not new – as Bach had done so before – but do you think that these paraphrases ended up better than the original works themselves?

Sometimes they did—especially the paraphrases from Italian operas, in which Liszt’s mastery of harmony often produces much more sophisticated effects than Donizetti, for example, would ever have dreamed of. And since I’ve no doubt already offended legions of Donizetti enthusiasts, I might as well also say that in my view Liszt’s transcription of the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust is also miles better than the original. I could go on, but I’m not sure I can afford the legal fees…

Did any of those works get more famous because of Liszt’s doing so?

Well, Liszt often chose operatic excerpts that were already famous in his own day, even if some of the operas concerned are largely forgotten now (Meyerbeer’s The Prophet for example—in many respects a great work, but hardly ever performed nowadays). But strangely, Liszt’s transcription did have a lasting effect on the reception of the celebrated final scene of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner called this “Isoldens Verklärung” (“Transfiguration”), whereas Liszt published it as “Isoldens Liebestod” (“Love-Death”). It turned out to be the Liszt title that stuck, not the Wagner (Wagner had referred to the Prelude to Act 1 of the opera as the “Liebestod”). We don’t know for sure why Liszt made the change, but it has been plausibly suggested by the Liszt scholar David Cannata that the devoutly Catholic Liszt associated the concept of “transfiguration” with Christ and the saints of the Church, and was therefore somewhat reluctant to apply the term to Isolde’s ecstatically sexual expiration!

And finally, what would your ideal (piano or otherwise) fantasy be?

I think I’d better take the 5th amendment on that, as the Americans say!

As previous recitals have been completely sold out over the last few years, don’t miss this chance to catch Professor Kenneth Hamilton playing some seldom-performed works, including the original version of Schumann’s Fantasy! The concert happens at 7.30pm on Sunday the 5th of April, at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

This concert is presented by Cardiff University.

March 30, 2015

A tribute to three great men..


While Singapore mourned the loss of her founding father and first prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew the past week, the artistic community also mourns the loss of two giants in their own right, Nobel-winning Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer and British composer-pianist Ronald Stevenson.

I never thought that I’d feel sad about the passing of someone I had not known personally, but strangely, as I stood with the rest of my Esplanade colleagues along the road in ponchos, drenched from the heavy rain while waiting for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s cortege to pass,  it struck me that without Mr Lee’s foresight and innovation, Singapore would not be what it is today; and among many other things, I would probably not have had exposure to the arts, the opportunity to learn music, and the chance to combine my passion for music and the arts in such a wonderfully varied job.

So thank you, Mr Lee, for all you have done, and may you rest in peace. Your legacy will always be remembered.

It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.

The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

– from ‘After a death’ by Tomas Transtromer

and a video of my professor Kenneth Hamilton playing his teacher Ronald Stevenson’s Fantasy on Britten’s Peter Grimes.

March 10, 2015

Bartók Tonight!

Bartók Tonight!


When I was 12 I came across the weirdest time signature in my life: instead of a single number on top of another single number, it was 2+2+2+3 over 8.
And I thought to myself, “Who on earth would write a piece with such a time signature?!!” But true enough, in the volume of the book that the piece was in, other pieces did indeed have time signatures that were just as funny-looking.

In the second year of college we had a listening examination, and there was a particular concerto which sounded very different from the rest. The movements had made use of various folk tunes, and I remembered one melody in particular that was called a “Dalmatian melody” which made use of polymodal chromaticism, because I had related the term ‘dalmatian’ to the dog breed! (Now you know how I study..) This concerto also has one movement in which a lovely night song is very obnoxiously interrupted by a big brass band, complete with trombone glissando blasts and crashing cymbals!

The composer of those works is none other than Béla Bartók, possibly one of the first ethnomusicologists, whose works were filled with folk melodies and Hungarian rhythms (now THAT explains the weird time signature!). He once said that he could not compose music that expressed absolutely nothing, and his music is proof of that: always interesting and peppered with many surprises along the way. He had used folk melodies and rhythms, combining them with his own unique harmonies, to result in a fascinating blend of wit and character.

The Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lim Yau will be performing an all Bartók concert on the 3rd of April (Good Friday), as part of their continuing educational concert series. For this concert, the Romanian Folk Dances and the abovementioned Concerto for Orchestra, with a semi-theatrical segment by actor-presenter William Ledbetter. Tickets cost $25 each, $45 for a pair, and $15 for concession. Grab your tickets from SISTIC now! 🙂


January 26, 2015

Stringing Generations – A review


An edited version of this review will be published in The Straits Times on 27th Jan 2015.

Stringing Generations


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-

rending elegy.


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.

January 12, 2015

Land with No Sun: Tze n Looking Glass Orchestra – An Advertisement


Imagine an earth of the future, one so polluted that man cannot live on it anymore. To survive, man took to the skies. After all, the sky’s the limit, isn’t it? They built sky-cities to live in, but the pollution continued. It continued so badly that the skies were almost covered up in complete darkness. What happens then? Can man save themselves from the consequences of their own acts? (sounds a little bit like the Disney movie Wall-E? This could be much better 🙂 )


Contemporary fusion ensemble Tze n Looking Glass Orchestra presents a unique audio-film concert – the story of a post-apocalypse future Earth, seen through the lens of different characters. Come experience this intriguing journey with them on the 29th of January at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

Tickets at $25, or $18 for students. Email to book your tickets today!

All music is original and composed by Tze.

**Quote PlinkPlonkPlunkTLGO in your email booking to receive a discount for tickets: $32 for two student tickets n $45 for two normal priced tickets***


January 5, 2015

The Brahms Sonatas: a review

The Brahms Sonatas: a review

‘Good Brahms is like char kway teow’, a friend once told me, ‘it is complex and has different layers, but too much of it when played the wrong way can make one sick of it’. Also, one of my benchmarks of good Brahms music would be whether or not the barlines can be heard. Loyal followers of Plink, Plonk, Plunk may have read this post, written during the time I was preparing for a small university-wide piano competition in Leeds (that I eventually won, yay) when my teacher Ian Buckle chided me for my audible barlines.


Brahms: The Violin Sonatas
Lee Shi Mei, violin, Lim Yan, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio
3 Jan 2014

Although a very popular programme on CDs and recitals (the last time the exact same programme was performed was just a year and a half ago, by Vladimir Choi and Albert Lin), it is still no mean feat to perform all three Brahms violin sonatas in a single concert.

Instead of chronologically, Lee and Lim opted to begin with the pastoral Second Sonata in A Major. From the opening bars one could already see that this partnership was going to be a successful one: Lee and Lim blended together well, fluidly passing the melody from piano to violin in the first movement. The tempo changes in the second movement were also seamless and not overly exaggerated.

In all, there was a wonderful naturalness about their playing, along with a sense of understated musicality, which conveyed the lyrical effusiveness of the sonatas. In the First Sonata, which Lee mentioned was the closest of all to her, the emotions were just as subtly brought out, from the agitation in the first movement, the underlying and profound sadness in the second, and the passion in the third movement, of which the ‘Regenlied’ or ‘rain song’ can be found, earning the sonata its nickname.

The passion continued all through the longer and more complex Third Sonata, op. 108, where the stormy key of d minor set the turbulent scene in the beginning and led to an immediate explosion of energy in the finale. Even at their loudest, Lee remained perfectly in tune and in control, the rich and full tone of her violin never overpowered by Lim.

As if there was not already enough Brahms for the evening, the duo returned to perform Brahms’ Scherzo from the collaboratively written F-A-E sonata, and the tender lied Wie Melodien zieht es mir leise durch denn Sinn, the first of five lieder in Op. 105 which is thematically linked to the Second Sonata. Thereafter, Lim jokingly mentioned that there was ‘just one more encore because today is a special day’, and turned the opening chords of the Second Sonata into a quasi birthday song.

Happy belated birthday, Shi Mei, and thank you both for the wonderful evening of music! And if anyone is wondering: nope, their music most definitely had inaudible barlines 🙂

December 11, 2014

TPO New Year’s Eve Countdown Concert 2015

TPO New Year’s Eve Countdown Concert 2015

They’re back again! The Philharmonic Orchestra is having their New Year’s Eve Countdown Concert yet again, so if you don’t want to be jostling with the crowds at Siloso Beach or around the Esplanade, then why not join TPO in the classiest way to spend the countdown?


1) Strauss- Fledermaus Overture
2) Strauss- Emperor’s Waltz
3) Dvorak- Slavonic Dance No. 8 (Furiant in G minor )
4) Rimsky-Korsakov- Capriccio Espagnole


5) Ellington/ Strayhorn/ Tchaikovsky- Nutcracker Suite
6) Hayman- Pops Hoedown
7) Williams- Schindler’s List
8) Respighi- Pines (4th movement only)

So ring in 2015 in style with an evening of classics! Sit back and celebrate the year-end with orchestral favourites from Johann Strauss’ best loved waltzes to Duke Ellington’s popular arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. There’s also some movie music, and watch and countdown with the Orchestra as they play Respighi’s exciting Pines of the Appian Way as the clock strikes midnight!

Led by Maestro Lim Yau and hosted by William Ledbetter, The Philharmonic Orchestra promises a pleasurable evening and good company on December 31st.

They also promise a glass of bubbly 🙂

Tickets available from Sistic, $37 for one and $60 for a pair.

ps. Look, they’re featured here as one of Straits Times’ best parties to countdown!

December 3, 2014

The Way North by 92steel&guts – An Advertisement

The Way North by 92steel&guts – An Advertisement

92steel&guts presents THE WAY NORTH

Sunday, 4th January 2015 || 4:30pm – 6:15pm (incl. Intermission)

Esplanade Recital Studio

Free Admission || Donations welcomed, post-concert


Gelato and pizza by the Leaning Tower, a scorching 40°C;
Star-gazing under the Aurora Borealis at a freezing –40°C.
Mamma-mia! Basta! ; Uff da! Så spennende!!!


Join 92steel&guts as we journey north in search of what really embodies Italy and

Norway – is Respighi really the award-winning pasta chef? Is Grieg that capable

seafarer from your last sailing holiday? Find out more at The Way North!

92steel&guts comprises violinist Tang Tee Tong and pianist Wong Yun Qi,

Singaporean musicians who are currently based in USA and Germany respectively.

The duo will be joined by guest singer Choy Siew Woon for their debut concert.



A selection of norwegian folksongs and folkdances, transcribed and improvised for

Voice, Violin and Piano || Edvard Grieg – Sonata for Violin and Piano, Nr. 3 || Ottorino

Respighi – Sonata for Violin and Piano || A selection from Ottorino Respighi´s 5 Pezzi


TICKET REGISTRATION through one of the following channels!

1. Do a reservation on their Facebook page – 92steel&guts

2. Send them an email –

3. Send them an SMS – +65 8494-9723

They will send you a ticket confirmation through the same channel.


FOLLOW them on Facebook: 92steel&guts for more updates!

December 2, 2014

Living with Brandon Voo: Asian Arpeggione and Romantic Rachmaninoff

Living with Brandon Voo: Asian Arpeggione and Romantic Rachmaninoff

Living with Brandon Voo
Brandon Voo, cello, Lin Xiu Min, piano
Living Room at The Arts House
Monday, 1 Dec 2014

Titled ‘Asian Arpeggione and Romantic Rachmaninoff’, the programme consisted of Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano, D821, and Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19, two sonatas which bookended the Romantic period of the nineteenth century.

the Viole de Paquin, or 琶琴


a mix of oriental features, with the fingerboard and bow of a cello but a chinese head and tuning pegs


The Schubert sonata, originally written for the now-extinct Arpeggione (a 5-stringed fretted instrument that was bowed like a cello), was performed by Voo on another now-defunct instrument which he affectionally nicknamed the Viole de Paquin. This instrument, known as the paqin in mandarin, was first invented to replace cellos in a Chinese orchestra, but the trend did not catch on. It was a hybrid of east and west, having a pear-shaped body like a pipa but the fingerboard and strings of a cello, which made its timbre close to that of an arpeggione.

Voo opted for a more laid-back tempo for the first movement of the Schubert, which resulted in a languorous and slightly lethargic feel. He looked uncomfortable with the instrument, and this was further confirmed by the numerous intonation issues which were present throughout the entire sonata, but were much more prominent in the first movement. In the second movement, the use of vibrato ensured slightly better intonation and a weightier tone. The drama was suitably brought out in the third movement, but it was a pity that the dynamic range and tone colours from the Viole de Paquin were limited and not as varied or subtle as pianist Lin Xiu Min’s accompaniment.


Lin and his trusty page-turner


Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata is as famous for its richly burgeoning melodies as it is infamous for its fiendishly difficult piano part. Lin rose to the occasion brilliantly, navigating through the notes with complete ease, knowing when to hold back and when to take the spotlight, Voo, who swapped the Viole de Paquin for a cello that he was more familiar with, delivered intensely passionate lines that wove themselves in the tapestry of Rachmaninoff’s music. His timbre in the upper range was sweetly lyrical, contrasting well with the darkly powerful and sonorous bass. The duo were mutually attentive and sensitive to each other at all times, storming through the exciting, heart-thumping second movement that later gave way to the more introspective third movement, then later racing through most of the joyous and triumphant final movement at a breathtaking speed.


As ardent applause from the full house ensued, Voo dished out “Truckin’ through the South”, a jazzy encore for solo cello by Aaron Minsky.

taking their bows at the end of the concert


Although a tad experimental, the Rachmaninoff Sonata which made the recital a most inspiring and memorable one.

photo credits: ©Jeff Low from

November 26, 2014

LANXESS-SNYO Classic ‘Musical Virtuosos’: Exclusive Interview with Natalie Clein

LANXESS-SNYO Classic ‘Musical Virtuosos’: Exclusive Interview with Natalie Clein
Whether it is playing a four-note warm-up exercise, demonstrating a phrase, or playing a concerto, cellist Natalie Clein plays every note with an infectious passion. She cares so much about her music that she would rather use her free time to warm up and practise than have dinner(!!!). Squeezing in time for a brief interview in a day of 8 students and rehearsal with the orchestra in the evening, Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with her in the final part of a series of interviews.

Natalie interviews Natalie!


First, a bit more about yourself: you come from quite a musical family, I understand. 
Did you choose to play the cello? 
I started on the violin when I was 4: it was definitely going to be a stringed instrument, that was on the cards, because my mother is a professional violinist and my father is a passionate amateur who plays the violin and viola. So I started on the violin and wasn’t getting on so well with it – I was wanting to tell my mum how to do it all the time! My father was very smart and came home one day when I was about six years old with a tiny cello, and I fell in love with it.
What was it like growing up?
We did sometimes play together, and it was fun, but sometimes fought as well, as all families do.. I would say that I was very privileged, because there was very often live chamber music around the house in the evenings; I got to hear live chamber music from a young age, and this is something I think all young people should be given a chance to experience, but of course many don’t. Many only experience music in the media, and they don’t understand what live music is – that it is a little bit like never hearing somebody sing for them, and only hearing pop music over the radio or something. Having live music experiences is very important, and you get the feeling of doing it yourself, and feeling empowered.
How much practice do you get in a day? 
A little less now than last time. I used to get about 5 hours in a day when I was studying, and now I’ve learnt to be a bit more economical, and I manage on about 2-3 hours. If I have to learn a new work, then it goes back to 5 hours. 
What would be a typical day for you? 
Oh, there’s no such thing as a typical day! Because everyday is a little different. But my day will nearly always consist of practicing, and either performing or teaching and sometimes both. Usually, if it’s a performance day, I might travel somewhere and then rehearse, have a short rest, and then play a concert. 
Otherwise I would be teaching at home or at the Royal College in London, and in between all of that I’m looking after my little daughter as well. I have busy days..
Do you ever get nervous when playing? 
I always feel butterflies in my stomach. That’s a kind of positive nerves – an energy, an excitement – it’s not always pleasant or a comfortable experience, but I think it’s essential for performing. But not letting it get to you is a skill, and it takes practice and some experience.
Let’s talk about your cello. I think musicians and their instruments are kind of like wizards and their wands in Harry Potter. You play on a Guadagnini cello. How long have you had it, and how did you know it was the one for you? 
I’ve had it for about 8-9 years. I was studying in Vienna, and I got to know of it through a dealer. Unfortunately I don’t own the instrument – these instruments are too expensive to own – they are owned by a group of shareholders, and I’m one of them as well. These instruments, I’d like to think we don’t own them, but we are just guardians if the instrument, for a certain amount of time. I’m very blessed to have it travelling with me on my journeys.
I see. And if you had the choice would you change this cello for another? 
I hope and pray to have this instrument for as long as I play. 

Natalie in rehearsal with the SNYO, playing on her 1777 Guadagnini cello


Is there a contemporary composer you would commission a work from? And why? 
There is a living composer whom I would love to commission a work.. It’s Sofia Gubaidulina. She’s about eighty now, a Russian composer, and I met her for the first time this summer and played a piece of hers. She’s fantastic, and very interesting composer. 
Besides commissions and collaborations with musicians, you’ve done some collaborations with a dancer and a writer. Can you tell me more about those? 
With a dancer I was playing solo Bach, and he was dancing. And it was just him, Carlos Acosta, and me on stage. It was like a chamber music piece together, a really successful production I have to say. It was exciting to learn a bit about dance, and to have this game of chamber music together. I hope to do more with dance in the future.
And with a writer it was a very creative project: she wrote, inspired by the Goldberg Variations. We were playing a theatre piece for string trio and actress. The actress was reading the words, and the string trio was playing the Bach. The writer was Jeanette Winterson, who is a great inspiration and also friend of mine. 
What do you think of Singapore and the musicians which you’ve worked with so far? 
Ah, I’m thrilled to be here in Singapore, and it is the Lanxess initiative which brought me here. It’s my first time in Singapore, and I have met lots of musicians here.. I’ve given masterclasses at NAFA and here in the conservatory as well, so in a short amount of time I’ve covered a lot of ground! 

The Youth Orchestra (SNYO) is a group of bright, hopeful, optimistic, young musicians with a great future, whichever path they choose, whether music or not: some will become musicians, and others will be music lovers, and that’s just as important. 
It has been a lot of fun for me, I went to the botanical gardens yesterday which was, really, very beautiful. And so far it’s been an inspiring and positive experience for me, and I hope, for everyone as well.


Name one thing about Singapore which you will come back for.
Many things! One thing I can say for sure is that I’ve eaten some fantastic food here, so that’s definitely always something I’ll come back for.. So, food, and all the new friends I’ve made.
Which composer do you wish would have written a cello concerto but didn’t?
That’s a good question! And an interesting one too because Brahms and Beethoven did not write cello concertos but they sort of did.. Beethoven wrote the triple concerto and Brahms wrote the double concerto, and both of them are cello-oriented because they are almost cello concertos. Still, saying that, I would’ve been fascinated to see what Beethoven would have come up with as a cello concerto, because the violin concerto is one of my all-time favourite pieces. And the same goes for Brahms, I adore the violin concerto, and would’ve loved to see what Brahms would have done.
After hearing Dvorak’s cello concerto, Brahms famously wrote that, had he known that one could write like that for the cello, he would have written a cello concerto. And of course there’s the beautiful cello solo in the second piano concerto.. So he was nearly almost there, but didn’t write a cello concerto.
I had a dream once actually, that I took up the floorboards in my old flat in London and I discovered Brahms’ cello concerto! I was reading the score, and it was speaking to me..  
And which composer wrote for cello but you wish he/she hadn’t? 
Beethoven! (chuckling) No no no, it’s not true, but it’s just that the Beethoven is so hard but very beautiful. No, I won’t say that. There’s very little cello music that I wish hasn’t been written because beggars can’t be choosers. We don’t have an endless repertoire, so we have to love everything that’s been written.
But I’ll tell you what I wish: if only Tchaikovsky had written a little bit more for the cello. And also the Rococo Variations are usually played in the revised version, which does irritate me. The original version is for me more musically satisfying although audiences and orchestras often don’t like it as much.
The pieces that are musically deep are often very cellistically interesting in some way. I guess you can always find something interesting in almost everything you play..

a post-interview picture

After the interview, a studio class of 3 and 5 other students in the day, Natalie showed no sign of tiring during that evening’s full orchestra rehearsal, where she gave an exhilarating account of a Saint-Saëns concerto followed by a soulful rendition of Faure’s elegie. Don’t miss this one-night-only performance, happening tonight at the Esplanade Concert Hall! Tickets are priced at $10, and available from Sistic.

photo credits: ©Jeff Low from

Plink, Plonk, Plunk is gratefully indebted to Jeff Low of Style Revisited for appearing at such short notice (40 minutes, please do not ever engage a photographer this way!) to help with photographs. Without him, photography would be limited to an iPhone 4 camera and most probably awkward-looking selfies. Jeff is an amazingly talented classical guitarist, a sensitive musician himself, and has an eye for special moments and the heart for people. That’s the soul of his work, of which the result is some stunning photography.

November 26, 2014

Interview with Lau Yun Xi, SNYO Cellist

Interview with Lau Yun Xi, SNYO Cellist

Young cellist Lau Yun Xi is one to look out for. At 15, she is one of the best cellists in the SNYO, and she was one of three cellists selected to fly to London for a week to be mentored under British award-winning cellist Natalie Clein. In the second part of three interviews, she tells Plink, Plonk, Plunk more about herself.

Hello! How old are you this year, and how long have you been playing cello?

I’m 15, and have been playing cello for 9-10 years

Did you choose to learn the cello?

Nope, it’s dad’s favourite instrument and he bought one for me.

Do you play any other musical instruments?


Which did you pick up first?

I guess I picked up both at around the same time.

Who inspires you?

Jacqueline Du Pre, I like her recording of Elgar (cello concerto), and Rostropovich’s Bach.
And Ms Clein as well, she has such an amazing big sound…

You went on a study trip last year to London, can you tell me more about it?

It was a week long, and not entirely musical as well – we got to walk around and see London too. Ms Clein gave a performance of Britten, and we attended and played in classes at the RCM. We also watched the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican; it was a gala concert, in celebration of Valery Gergiev’s 60th birthday. We also got to perform at the end of it.

How was Ms Clein as a teacher? And what was one most important lesson you learnt from her?

She’s very nice, very patient, and such a good teacher. I’ve learnt so much from her, all so important.. Guess it would be intonation

What was most memorable about that trip?

The masterclasses – I learnt a lot from Ms Clein, and we learnt from each other as well..

Do you have a favourite piece that you would like to learn some day?

Dvorak and Elgar cello concertos

What’s your favourite work or composer?
Brahms. I’ve been learning and will be playing the e minor sonata for the studio class later, and it is quite an emotional work, much more difficult to get the music than the notes

Any hobbies besides playing cello (if you even count that as a hobby)?

Reading, listening to music, especially on rainy days

Yunxi then went on to perform the first movement of a Brahms cello sonata, and the tone she drew out from the cello was simply gorgeous. She plays with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra  this Thursday evening, with soloist Natalie Clein under the baton of Jason Lai at the Esplanade Concert Hall, 7.30pm. Tickets going at $10 each, available from Sistic.

Photo credits: ©Jeff Low from

November 25, 2014

LANXESS-SNYO Classic ‘Musical Virtuosos’: Exclusive Interview with Jason Lai!

LANXESS-SNYO Classic ‘Musical Virtuosos’: Exclusive Interview with Jason Lai!

Apologies for the long hiatus, there have been a few log-in and password issues, but everything’s back and running – and just in time too, for the upcoming LANXESS-SNYO concert happening at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Thursday evening.

As a lead-up to the concert, Plink, Plonk, Plunk gets in contact with three of the people involved. Here’s the first of three interviews, and it is none other than the conductor, Jason Lai. The British orchestral conductor has been hailed by the BBC as one of the leading lights in a new generation of young conductors after winning the BBC Young Conductors Workshop. He is also a broadcaster, cellist, and composer, and is at present the Associate Conductor with the SSO, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and Principal Conductor of the YST Conservatory Orchestra. As he keeps an extremely busy schedule, he gives his answers in an e-mail interview below.

Jason Lai conducts the SNYO-YST orchestra with Natalie Clein playing solo

You’ve studied composition and cello and then conducting, which is your favourite thing to do?

I miss playing the cello, particularly chamber music, and composing new pieces but conducting is my favourite thing. Every time I conduct I get an incredible buzz. Especially since I get to conduct great music, great works of art that have been left to us by great composers!

Do you still have time to play cello and compose when you’re conducting so much?

Unfortunately not, however, I still love to listen to the cello and explore new music from the new generation of composers. 

And if you still have extra time, what do you like to do in your spare time?

My passion is photography. I always take my camera with me when I head out to explore. My camera is always on, and I never leave my lens cap on. This way I can capture interesting moments at all times without missing a beat. I’d love to hold a photography exhibition soon and am working to create a collection of work that I would very much like to share.

You’ve won a conducting competition and that resulted in a chance to conduct the BBC orchestras and choirs. What was that like? What did you learn from it?

It was tough! On the hindsight winning the competition was the easy part. When you are standing on the podium for the first time as a winner, you then encounter the difficult part – proving to yourself and to everyone why you deserved the win. I always advise my students that you are only nervous when you are not fully prepared and engaged with the music.

You have conducted orchestras from Asia and Europe, are there any distinct differences between Asian and European orchestras?

Not really, orchestras tend to have a mix of players of different nationalities; hence they often have cultural differences. I remember once conducting an orchestra in Sweden. The orchestra sat and listened intently to everything I said. I was surprised and asked if there was anything wrong and they said no, they were listening to the rehearsal!

Some people think classical music is boring and only for the elite. What do you have to say to that?

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but what I would say is give classical music a go and you might like it! I was recently reading an article which suggests that classical music is for snobs and elites but you know what? You get rock n roll snobs, pop snobs, jazz snobs, RnB snobs….the world has room to accommodate all this music and more so just let’s live side by side shall we?!

I’m sure you’ve worked with many people before. Can you tell of the most interesting or inspiring personality that you’ve worked with?

I was lucky enough to work with Colin Davis who sadly, passed away last year. He was a great conductor who shared with me many things including advice about how to be the best conductor. It was well known that as a young man he was quite direct and abrupt with orchestra, in a manner some would say rude. He had told me once that he regretted behaving in such a manner and that I should treat musicians with respect and patience. Those words have always stayed with me.

Finally, say in 50 words or less, what your favourite piece of music is, and why? 

Too many pieces to say which my favourite is. There is simply so much music out there and I’m listening to new things all the time. But If I had to listen to the Bach’s everyday for the rest of my life I would count myself lucky.

Catch Jason Lai in action conducting the Singapore National Youth Orchestra this Thursday evening at the Esplanade Concert Hall, 7.30pm. Tickets going at $10 each, available from Sistic. Stay tuned over the next few days for interviews with two other special people!

Photo credits: ©Jeff Low from

October 25, 2014

The Merry Widow – A Review

The Merry Widow – A Review
An edited version of this review will be published in The Straits Times on 27 Oct 2014. 

The Merry Widow
Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Theatre
Friday, 24th October
Since gender stereotyping has come under intense media scrutiny of late, the Singapore Lyric Opera’s production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow over the weekend couldn’t have come at a better time. Staged more as a musical than an opera with spoken dialogue, this well-loved operetta with its tuneful melodies was rife with gender stereotyping, mostly to do with women being enigmatic. It tells of a young, beautiful and stupendously wealthy widow’s quest to find a new husband, and her country men’s attempts to find her a local suitor for fear of losing her (and her money) to Paris, leaving their homeland of Pontevedro in bankruptcy.

Tiffany Speight shows she can dance the can-can and sing, in tune and in sync! 

The three-act operetta remained faithful to its quintessential Edwardian form with costumes, a chandelier, and can-can dancing Parisian girls, but was sung and spoken in English rather than the original German. Simple but versatile set design by Aaron Christopher Yap was made highly effective by innovative lighting from designer Adrian Tan, most memorably when the scene depicting a garden party was transformed into a magic forest for the song “Vilja” in an instant through subtle lighting changes in the backdrop.  

Camille and Valencienne in their tender love duet 

Ashley Catling as attaché Camille de Rosilion sounded weaker and a little forced in the first act, but warmed up to deliver a passionate love song ‘Red as the rose of May time’ in the second act. Tiffany Speight embraced the role of Camille’s love interest Valencienne with gusto. She was naturally suave and charming, even managing to stay perfectly in tune and in step while singing and dancing the can-can! Her naive and cuckolded husband, Baron Zeta was aptly played by the grandfatherly John Bolton Wood.
Grandfatherly John Bolton Wood plays the cuckolded Baron, and Steven Ang as Njegus, his attendant

the Merry Widow tells the tale of Vilja

The jewel of the production was most definitely lyric soprano Kishani Jayasinghe. She outshone the rest of the cast, and not only literally by the amount of bling she wore in the first act, but with her sumptuous vocals as well. As wealthy widow Hanna, Jayasinghe exuded a dazzling Parisian glamour and authority, and enthralled the audience. She showed herself to be a complete master of her voice, with a clear projection, impeccable dynamic control, and a stunning range of colour. She was well-matched with Nicholas Ransley who played her old flame, Count Danilo Danilovich. He had a charming and cultivated air about him, and their duet scenes, whether arguing, dancing or singing, were always a delight to watch.

Nicholas Ransley as Count Danilovich made a good match with Jayasinghe
The constant competition and banter between Cascada and St Brioche kept the production light-hearted. With such a rich tone, one wishes that tenor Melvin Tan had more lines to sing. The non-singing, spoken role of Njegus played by Steven Ang kept the audience amused, and multiple local references such as the Baron’s complaints of the Indonesian haze and Njegus’s exclamation of “Siao liao ah!” also added to the comic relief.

Melvin Tan as Cascada. If only he had more lines to sing! 
The ensemble-work, especially by the male cast in ‘Women, women, women!’ and by the quintet towards the end was tight and well-balanced. The entire production was supported wonderfully by the orchestra, especially at the ‘Vilja’ reprise where the silvery line of the solo violin mingled with the mellow tone of the oboe to beautifully evoke the feeling of nostalgia.
Gender-stereotyping does work after all, but probably only when employed in a comical operatic fashion.

photo credits: Singapore Lyric Opera – Bernie Ng
October 20, 2014

Answer and results for Ticket Giveaway Contest: Synergy in Music 2014 presented by Gazprom

Answer and results for Ticket Giveaway Contest: Synergy in Music 2014 presented by Gazprom

So… when did Vadim Repin first perform in Singapore?

He first performed in Singapore at the Singapore Festival of Arts in 1996 at Victoria Concert Hall, as shown by a search on NewspaperSG.

He has subsequently returned multiple times in the next few years, including the year 2000, and the most recent appearance was in 2012 with Neeme Jarvi at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

Repin returns to perform at the place he first performed 18 years ago, the Victoria Concert Hall, and this time with 5 other acclaimed Russian musicians in an evening of chamber music. The concert takes place on the 28th of October, 7pm.

Since all answers submitted were wrong, two winners were picked at random:

So congratulations to Tay Kang Xun and Rachael Chan!! You both win a pair of tickets (worth $89) each to Synergy in Music 2014 presented by Gazprom. An email will be sent to you regarding ticket collection later.

Don’t miss this one-night-only chance to watch Vadim Repin and other Russian musical talents. Get your tickets from Sistic now!

This concert is sponsored by Gazprom as part of their initiative to forge deeper intercultural bonds between the arts in Singapore and Russia.

October 16, 2014

TPO Presents… Debusssy Tonight! – an advertisement

TPO Presents… Debusssy Tonight! – an advertisement

If paintings were songs, what would they sound like? Would their colours be harmonies; would their subjects be tempo markings?

Join The Philharmonic Orchestra in exploring the picturesque music of Debussy in their next concert
‘Debussy Tonight’ on October 26th! This concert is a continuation of their popular educational concert series and the orchestra will be joined by actor-presenter William Ledbetter as he tells the stories in Debussy’s music. Enter the sound world of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun which ‘brought new breath to the art of music’ (Pierre Boulez), and be swept away in the luxurious waters of the Mediterranean by the composer’s iridescent symphonic sketches, La Mer.

TPO will also be joined by The Philharmonic Chamber Choir with Trois Chansons which connects the styles of the past with the harmonic techniques of the time.

This concert takes place at the Victoria Concert Hall on the 26th of October at 5pm. Tickets are priced at $25, with discounts and concessions available.

October 7, 2014

Synergy in Music 2014 presented by Gazprom: Gazprom – Plink, Plonk, Plunk Ticket Giveaway Contest!!


Award-winning violinist Vadim Repin will be in Singapore to perform at an exclusive one-night only gala concert, Synergy in Music, this 28 October 2014 at the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

Repin will be performing at Synergy in Music together with six other Russian musical talents, where they will be bringing timeless classical pieces to life through an intricately crafted recital with five diverse string compositions, and with a highlight performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence”.

Don’t miss this one-night-only chance to watch Vadim Repin and other Russian musical talents. Get your tickets from Sistic now!

ALTERNATIVELY, Gazprom has kindly sponsored TWO PAIRS of tickets to be given away to two lucky winners who can answer the following question:

Which year did Vadim Repin first perform in Singapore?

Submit your answers here by 18th Oct 2014. Winners will be notified by email.

This concert is sponsored by Gazprom as part of their initiative to forge deeper intercultural bonds between the arts in Singapore and Russia.

October 3, 2014

VCH Chamber Series: Stephen Hough in Recital – a review

VCH Chamber Series: Stephen Hough in Recital – a review

It was on the 5th of January last year that I went to watch Stephen Hough play a programme of Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, and a work of his own at a church in Harrogate. Christmas and the New Year had come and gone, but our university had remained shut, leaving me bored and not able to practice in Leeds. When C from my Italian class asked if I wanted to watch Hough play at a neighbouring town where he lived, I jumped at the chance and went along.

We arrived slightly before the concert started and by then, the lower floor of Wesley Chapel was filled and we were directed to the upper level, where we found seats which had our views blocked: so we heard the concert rather than watched it, only getting a view of Hough when he stood up to bow.

Although C didn’t particularly fancy Brahms’ and preferred Schumann’s Carnaval, I was blown away by his playing, especially in the slow movements. In fact, I thought his playing was perfect, almost too perfect.

I also thought it was amusing that he played almost the entire programme from memory, except for (ironically) his own piece, in which he required not only the score, but also a page turner!

At the end of the concert, Hough explained that he was quite ill and initially intended to cancel the concert – I’m glad he didn’t!

A year and a half later, back in my home on the other side of the world, I relished the opportunity to watch him play.

An edited version of review below will be published in The Straits Times on 4 October 2014.

photo credits: SIM CANETTY-CLARKE 

VCH Chamber Series: Stephen Hough in Recital
Stephen Hough, piano
Victoria Concert Hall
Thursday, 2 Oct 2014

“It’s like a sandwich, French rye bread at the ends and some a Polish sausage in the middle,” says British pianist Stephen Hough of his recital programme, before playing Chopin’s Op. 15 no. 2 Nocturne in F-sharp Major as his first encore.

Hough has made regular concert appearances in Singapore since the 1990s, and has gained a large fan base here. His programme comprised of four Debussy works which bookended the four Chopin ballades, and this performance was his first since the Victoria Concert Hall was refurbished, having performed there numerous times before.

Adhering to Debussy’s performance directions of playing with delicacy and tempo fluctuations, Hough delivered a clearly coherent and witty performance of La Plus Que Lent, emphasising the dissonant harmonies cheekily and intentionally keeping the tempo unstable. These quirky characteristics were also evident in the penultimate work, Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite, especially in the third (Serenade of the Doll) and last movement (Golliwog’s cakewalk).

In Estampes, the acoustics of the hall suited Pagodes well, the tones of the piano resonating nicely before fading. In the Habanera, the opening high C-sharps rang clear like a tinkling bell. Hough flitted between the contrasting sections with a natural ease and seemed to revel in the ‘wrong notes’, the peculiar and unique harmonies which gave the work its character. Unfortunately, the acoustics worked against the toccata-like Jardins sous la Pluie, leaving behind an array of blurred notes echoing away all throughout the work.

Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse which closed the concert was inspired by artist Watteau’s colourful painting, L’Embarquement de Cythère, depicting a happy group of revellers departing for/from a mythical island that is the birthplace of goddess Venus. Hough’s version, however, was monochrome. He played only loud and louder, the expressive palette of colours he used for the earlier works seem to have been exhausted, and the subtleties of tonal shading also used before were non-existent here. The quiet sparkling and shimmering of the water at the beginning sounded more like a rushing stream.

In between Estampes and the Children’s Corner suite were the four Chopin ballades, daringly fast and played with refreshing candour. The calm introduction of the Second Ballade gave way to wild, careless abandon, and the tentativeness in the beginning of the First Ballade broke into an overly sentimental and lyrical middle section. Throughout the Ballades the louder moments were fiery and brilliant – Hough was undoubtedly a virtuoso – but it was in the softer and stiller moments where he made an impact. His use of rubato was strikingly unconventional. He lingered over certain phrases, taking time at all sorts of places, and sometimes even intentionally playing both hands asynchronously such that the melody is given prominence. The ending of the Fourth Ballade was taken at breakneck speed, again resulting in a blur.

Hough subsequently tossed off two more encores: a Pas de Deux from Austrian composer Léon Minkus’ ballet music for Don Quixote, and the nocturne from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces Suite, Op. 54 no. 4.

September 17, 2014

On the Flipside: An antipodal concert – an advertisement

On the Flipside: An antipodal concert – an advertisement

Antipodes: Having the feet opposite.
Anti: against, opposite+opus; pod: foot.

As a child living on the other side of the world, flautist Roberto Álvarez often wondered, ‘if you dig a hole straight down through the Earth, will you end up in New Zealand?’

And since New Zealand is on the other side of the world, do people walk with their feet in the air? Do they speak backwards? Do trees grow upside down too, starting from the leaves and ending with their roots in the air?

How then, do people play music and write for the flute? In this recital, Roberto Álvarez and pianist Shane Thio explore the repertoire by Spanish composers Elisenda Fábregas and Salvador Brotons, and Kiwis Gareth Farr and Anthony Ritchie.

Come find out, and compare how different or how similar flute music is on the flipside! Happening next tuesday, 23rd September 2014, at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Get your tickets from Sistic now! Tickets are priced at $30 each.

September 11, 2014

PLAY! by More than Music – a review


An edited version of this article was published in The Straits Times with the title ‘Classical music reaching out’.

PLAY! by More than Music
Loh Jun Hong and Gabriel Ng, violin, Abigail Sin, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio

More than Music’s approach of making classical music more accessible to public seems to be working like a charm: tickets was sold out yet again days before the concert; and violinists Loh Jun Hong and Gabriel Ng played to a full house in a performance at Orchard Central’s Ya Kun outlet over the weekend for a Symphony 92.4’s inaugural Cafe Concert.

In PLAY!, which welcomed award-winning violinist Gabriel Ng into their society of musicians, the interesting and varied programme comprised mostly of showpieces. Opening and closing the evening were two works for solo violin, but presented by two.

Bach’s Partita no. 1 in B Minor as most know it exists in 8 parts, four dance movements and their doubles which were written twice as fast in notation but played with the same number of impulses in a bar. In what is probably the first of its kind, Loh and Ng overlaid the dance movements with their doubles to create a complex yet coherent web of Bachian counterpoint.

Their playing was wonderfully free, each sensitive to the other’s nuances. The faster Courante and Bourrée were delivered with breathtaking speed and accuracy. Likewise, this was also evident in the closing work, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen in an excellent arrangement for two violins by Jonathan Shin, where the improvisatory interplay gave way to a fiery finale.

The piano was not quite its usual self, and this was more evident when Sin played Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse. Sin’s variety of touch and spectrum of tone colour enchanted the audience, but the ravishing radiance of the final bars was mellowed by the muffled tones of the piano. However, the dampened piano worked to Sin’s advantage in the first three pieces of Brahms’ Op. 118 – late Brahms always sounds better on pianos with darker tones – as she created the tempestuous, brooding, tender and poetic moments in his music.

Three delectable miniatures by Kreisler and a Chopin Nocturne revealed another facet of Loh and Ng. Ng combined the sweet, supple tone of his violin with wit and humour in a performance of Kreisler’s Liebeslied and Liebesfreud. Loh, ever the charmer, playfully teased his way through Syncopation, adding rubato wherever he pleased while Sin miraculously kept up with his antics. Later, Loh played Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, arranged by Milstein for violin and piano, with an exquisitely singing tone and delicate phrasing.

Two encores, the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita no. 2 by Sin, and Vittorio Monti’s ever popular Czardas arranged and performed by Loh and Ng, were gleefully lapped by the audience. The growing number of fans only proves one thing: that classical music is cool, and very much alive.

September 8, 2014

Listen to the 20th Century: days 2-4 – A Review


An edited version of this review will be published in The Straits Times on 9 September 2014.

Listen to the 20th Century
Southbank Centre, London Sinfonietta, YST Orchestra
SOTA Concert Hall
5-7 September 2014

Day two of mini-festival Listen to the 20th Century presented by the London Sinfonietta and Southbank Centre London featured two Russian works from 1936-7, when Russia was under the Soviet Union, the Stalinist regime which was also nicknamed “the reign of terror”.

Instead of the usual narration, this version of Peter and the Wolf was presented alongside a short, non-vocal film by Susie Templeton which won numerous awards, including an Oscar in 2008. Based in cold, wintry Russia, the film effectively complimented the music to bring the story to life. Like the earlier Schoenberg pieces for orchestra of day 1, this was also reduced for an ensemble of 13. The buoyant character of music and light hearted moments in the film had also made it easy for the larger number of younger audience to appreciate. In the film, the wolf had looked like a harmless, badly taxidermied creature, but the trio of horn, clarinet and bassoon gave it the menacing character.

In the second half, the combined orchestra which played Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony filled the entire stage, and at louder moments the orchestra seemed too large for the concert hall. Despite the sheer number of musicians, the best parts of the music were in the second movement when the orchestration was smaller and written for chamber-playing. There were numerous beautiful solos from the concert mistress and woodwinds. In the first and third movements, the strings, especially the violins, lacked warmth of tone, sounding shrill and almost astringent, but this characteristic proved effective in the final movement.

Day three saw a “marathon-concert” of three parts which started at 6pm and ended four and a half hours later with two short intermissions, works presented encompassed the avant-garde, the spiritual, and the minimalist. The first part opened with a recording of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, for boy soprano and electronic tones, digitally synthesised and broadcast through speakers placed all around the hall for a surround-sound effect. The lights were turned off as well, inviting the audience to experience the music without the visual aspect of a performance. Victoria Simmonds came back on stage to sing Berio’s eleven folk songs. Simmonds switched effortlessly between the different languages in the set, and was accompanied more than ably by John Constable on the piano. Before this, Constable turned the piano into a percussion instrument with bell-like sonorities by inserting bolts and screws into the body of the piano as instructed by John Cage, and proceeding to play five short works from his Sonatas and Interludes.

The second and third parts focused on the spiritual and meditative compositions which eventually led to minimalism. Steve Reich used motifs from the prosody of speech, transcribed them into musical motifs, and juxtaposed the two together on top of a recorded track in Different Trains. A live string quartet played the work alongside the recorded track with machine-like precision, replicating the monotonous grind of travelling trains and sirens in concentration camps. Arvo Pärt’s meditative Fratres fared less well, and was marred by numerous intonation issues. Violinists Laurent Quenelle and Joan Atherton, who played in the quartets earlier, worked tirelessly as soloists for Schnittke’s parody-laced Concerto Grosso no. 1, joined by Constable on the harpsichord and some students from the YST orchestra.

Terry Riley’s founding work of minimalism In C, written for any amount of instruments and any length of time, was given a late-night performance at 10pm by an eclectic mix of instruments: joining 13 orchestral instruments was an erhu, an accordion, and a yang qin! The instruments created an ebb and flow around a constant tolling note C from a xylophone, sometimes letting the ethnic instruments take centre stage.

The two works before the intermission on the last day were by Asian composers Unsuk Chin and Toru Takemitsu. Chin’s 2009 composition Gougalon was percussion-heavy, and required the other members of the chamber ensemble to hold and play a percussion instrument other than their own instrument. In spite of this, the two percussionists were still kept in a frenzy, moving from instrument to instrument trying to play their parts. The musicians employed extended techniques in playing their instruments, bringing across the vivid and extravagant use of colours and messy textures. In stark contrast, Takemitsu’s Rain Coming was a fluid, impressionistic soundscape, slightly reminiscent of Debussy, yet with more futuristic harmonies and shrouded in ambiguity.

A long-drawn unison C from the combined orchestra,the final note of Scottish composer James Macmillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie restored order to the last concert where there were “No More Rules” and brought the festival to an end. In British composer Thomas Adès’ Chamber Symphony before, fragments of jazz and tonal motifs were sprinkled amidst the atonal, interconnected four movements.

Throughout the 4 days, every musician in the Sinfonietta had shown themselves to be top-notch performers in their field of new music, each having the dedication to learn, and the sensibility and sensitivity to listen, appreciate and interpret the music they were playing.

Although numerous significant composers such as Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb and Milton Babbitt have been left out, this mini festival has been a milestone in the introduction and performance of 20th century music in Singapore with numerous Singapore premieres. After six concerts and five talks over four days by one of the world’s leading contemporary classical music ensembles, hopefully the audience who journeyed through this sonic treasure hunt of sounds were challenged and found new aural experiences and enlightenment. If anything, unlike 101 years ago in Paris, at least a riot didn’t break out.

September 4, 2014

Listen to the 20th Century: Early Modernism and the Jazz Age – a review

Listen to the 20th Century: Early Modernism and the Jazz Age – a review

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 5 September 2014.

Listen to the 20th Century: Early Modernism and the Jazz Age
Southbank Centre/ London Sinfonietta/ YST Orchestra
SOTA Concert Hall
Wednesday 3 September 2014

It is ironic that while the Singapore Symphony Orchestra just played for the BBC Proms in London last night, the London Sinfonietta is here playing at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. This festival of 20th century music by the Southbank Centre and London Sinfonietta encourages the audience to “Listen to the 20th Century”, breaking it down into six concerts (including a triple- bill on Saturday) and five talks across four days.

the combined orchestra of YST and London Sinfonietta in the opening works

Starting with what many consider to be the beginning of modern music, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra opened with Debussy’s Prelude l’apres midi d’un faune and Webern’s Passacaglia. Conducted by Jason Lai, these were cautious and restrained readings, and the orchestra seemed as though they were holding back, even at the climaxes. The lovely flute solos in the Debussy were much too soft and often covered up by the orchestra.

The rest of the concert was played by members of the London Sinfonietta, led by Sian Edwards. While the stage was being readied, BBC Radio 3 presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch engaged the audience by speaking about the works and the contexts in which they were composed.

Although condensed into a smaller ensemble of eleven musicians, the colouristic textures of Schoenberg’s highly detailed Five Pieces for Orchestra were clearly brought across, the missing orchestra instruments filled by an electronic synthesiser keyboard. Likewise, the harsh blips, beeps and chugging of industrial machinery in Varese’s sound world Octandre were played with machine- like precision.

As the music moved away from serialism and atonality towards jazz, pianist John Constable accompanied mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds in three songs by Kurt Weil. Simmonds looked a little awkward and stiff in her rendition of Surabaya Johnny, standing rooted to the spot with her arms by her side. She loosened up in The Ballad of Sexual Slavery and Le Grand Lustucru. Vocally, she delivered her characters’ disenchantment, disillusionment and later artfulness with sophistication, using a tone of voice that was half operatic and half broadway.

The Three Pieces for String Quartet were strange and short miniatures, comprising of rhythmic and melodic fragments, were delicately handled, especially the “wrong-note” chorale in the final piece. If jazz was threatening to break out before, it was finally let loose in the closing work, Milhaud’s lively 6-movement La création du monde, based on the African mythology of the creation of the world, of which particularly noteworthy were the bluesy oboe solos which complemented the soulful saxophone solos.

The rest of the Talks and concerts of Listen to the 20th Century take place over the weekend at SOTA, dealing with music of the Soviet era on Friday evening, post-war directions on Saturday and finally the progression into a musical world without rules on Sunday afternoon. Don’t miss the chance to catch the London Sinfonietta and the YST Orchestra in action!

all photos by kind permission of SIFA and credits to Chong Yew.

September 3, 2014

What’s On Your Mind? – A review


An edited version of this review will be published in The Straits Times on 4 September 2014. 

What’s On Your Mind?
Jasper Goh, flute, Tommy Peh, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio

Natalie Ng

Glancing at the highly ambitious programme for the concert, one wondered if it was a flute recital accompanied by piano or piano recital accompanied by a flute. Presented by young flautist Jasper Goh and pianist Tommy Peh, the repertoire showcased a myriad of styles from baroque to jazz to cater to the differing tastes of the audience.

Half shuffling onstage with a sheepish expression to cheers and applause from the audience, Peh launched into the opening prelude of Bach’s Partita no. 5 in G Minor without properly settling down at the piano. At best, Peh managed to play all the notes. For the faster movements his tempo was erratic and unsteady, with no sense of pulse. The lines of running notes were also often uneven and hurried, as though he might trip and fall anytime. The slower movements he played with more restraint, yet had no sense of direction. The fiercely tempestuous and highly compressed Third Piano Sonata of Prokofiev which followed was mostly loud heavy-handed, but remotely better than the Bach. The lower notes were often muddied with overtones, and those in the high register were sharp and jarring. For a smaller performance space such as the recital studio, it might have been better if the piano was at half lid rather than fully open.

The works Goh selected to perform were all by French composers, beginning with Jules Mouquet’s neoclassical work La Flûte de Pan. When Peh reappeared to accompany Goh it was as though a transformation took place backstage. The opening pastorale was played energetically yet elegantly, with long-limbed melodic lines. In the second movement which depicts Pan and the birds, flourishes of notes in the flute that portrayed birdsong were beautifully echoed by the piano. Peh proved to be a much better accompanist than soloist, complementing Goh’s polished playing with much sensitivity and insight. The third movement was agile and playful, and Goh was immaculately precise and rhythmically stable in the rapid, staccatissimo double-tongued passages.

Pierre Sancan’s subtle and evocative Sonatine for flute and piano was an atmospheric work with difficulties in both instrument parts. Goh was highly imaginative in his playing, and both flute and piano lines were often woven seamlessly together to create a fine balance in tone and sound.

The next two works for solo piano blurred the lines between classical and jazz, scored out on sheet music but performed as though improvising. Peh dedicated these to his late teachers, Mr Lim Shieh Yih and Mr Ong Lip Tat. Haze, by classically-trained jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara, was a quasi-impressionistic, semi-jazzy work which featured extemporisations and improvisations over a constant, almost hypnotic bass. Peh sat with his head bowed, very much like Keith Jarrett, and gave an intense and highly emotional performance. The Op. 41 Variations by Nikolai Kapustin were a little more light-hearted, jazzing up the famous bassoon solo which opens Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in various virtuosic guises. Peh was clearly in his element, breezing through the technical challenges and animatedly bringing out the characters of each variation.

The closing work, Cesar Franck’s monumental Sonata in A Major, only proved Goh’s affinity for French music. Franck’s masterful writing sees the violin and piano parts given equal treatment, working together to bring across the lush and complex melodies. Peh and Goh brought a glorious close to the recital, playing off each other in the charming and action-packed finale.

So after all that, what’s on my mind? Perhaps a book by Proust, a madeleine and tea, and even more french music.

September 2, 2014

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir presents The Bird of Time – A review

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir presents The Bird of Time – A review

The Bird of Time
The Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Victoria Concert Hall
Last Sunday

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, led by Lim Yau, marked their 20th anniversary with a concert in Victoria Concert Hall on Sunday, in what was probably the first choral concert since the opening of the hall after a 4-year-long refurbishment.

The concert programme was made up entirely of Asian a capella music, featuring a varied selection of works by well-known composers. Titled The Bird of Time, the Singaporean premiere of local composer Zechariah Goh’s Péng (鵬), based on a Chinese fable about the metamorphosis of a large fish into a large bird, was an apt opening to the concert. Perhaps due to nerves, the composition’s ambiguous opening, the fact that the composer was in the audience, or a combination of all three, the choir sounded unsettled and was initially off to a shaky start. Despite that, they soon gained the confidence needed to portray Goh’s highly imaginative word-painting which made use of aleatory, depicting the grandeur and majesty of the large bird as it took flight for the heavens.

The next work on the programme was Rubáiyát, a set of six pieces by Japanese composer Takatomi Nobunaga. Its text was derived from the quatrains of Renaissance philosopher Omar Khayyám, translated from Persian into English then Japanese, and then set in song. Having gone through such transformations in the text, much of the Persian element was also lost in the music. What transpired in the music was the heavy influence of the Western choral tradition, blended with Japanese harmonies. Taking listeners on a wisdom-filled journey from the plainchant-like beginning to the vast expanse of sonority and luscious harmony, sanity to madness, each member of TPCC showed that they were proficient soloists in their own right, yet able to blend beautifully together.

These fine qualities were also showcased in Filipino composer Francisco Feliciano’s setting of Psalm 23 in Tagalog instead if the usual English or Latin. The novel juxtaposition of plainchant with Tagalog was further enhanced by the sweet and angelic solos from Isyana Sarasvati. Pamugun, which closed the concert and was also by Feliciano, was rhythmically tight but lacking in character. The mocking of the sparrow as it taunted the hunter could have been much better characterised. Instead of imitating the raw, bright timbres of the Kulintang, the choir looked visibly tired and sounded a tad too polite and polished.

Fairing much better were the two Korean works by Lee Geon Yong. In his Four Songs Without Words, the ethereal harmonies of the outer and more contemplative songs were delightfully contrasted with the more active inner movements, which were a mimicry of sounds and instruments. With such a quirky title as Buckwheat Jelly for Sale, the second was somewhat a soundscape of typical day on a Korean street two or three decades ago. The haggling and sounds of tofu and taffy sellers plying their trade was heightened by the use of percussion – tambourines, gongs and bells – but alas, the tambourines were a little too loud and occasionally drowned out the choir.

Chen Yi’s arrangement of the traditional Korean folk tune Arirang was soulfully dished out as an encore. Happy 20th birthday TPCC, and wishing you many more years of music-making!

August 27, 2014

Chamber.Sounds presents New Chamber Operas – A Review

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 28th August 2014 with the title ‘Sweet Sounds of Chamber Operas’.

New Chamber Operas
Esplanade Recital Studio
Last Tuesday
Local contemporary ensemble Chamber.Sounds had their beginnings in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 2005, and have been presenting a concert of local and original new music annually since 2011. In what seemed to be their most ambitious project yet, they premiered four chamber operas specially written for them in a concert yesterday, following a successful call for proposals for commissioning early last year. The same programme was also performed a day earlier on Tuesday as a preview for children and students, which this reviewer attended.
Chamber operas, as their name suggests, employ a much smaller ensemble and cast. Hence, the musicians share the stage with the singers and are sometimes involved in the action. In the final opera, Canadian composer Rita Ueda’s One Thousand White Paper Cranes for Japan, musicians were dressed in white instead of the usual black, and made to shuffle around the stage at the beginning, as though wandering souls leaving this world for the next.
A heart-warming story with a happy ending, her work was based on a real life story of a Canadian boy who began a fund-raising project for the victims of the 2011 tsunami which impacted Japan. Although teeming with newfangled compositional techniques, multimedia (lighting and video) and conceptually strong, most of it was lost in translation. Without a synopsis, explanation or a copy of the music, the audience would not be able to fully grasp the content.
Opening the concert was Australian composer Nicole Murphy’s work, The Kamikaze Mind, based on a book of the same title. The strange and highly philosophical work was made up of recovered fragments from the mind of an astronaut who launched himself into a black hole. His past comes back to find him, consisting of a He, his younger self, and a She, a former lover. Baritone Daniel Ho’s deep voice and clear enunciation was a joy to listen to, and he was complimented by the lyrical and lighter voices of tenor Jeremy Koh and Bernadeta Astari.
Also in the same vein but less strange was local composer Chen Zhangyi’s Window Shopping. This tonal and light-hearted work had a mix of elements such as neo-Baroque, Impressionism and Broadway. The narrative juxtaposed two differing attitudes of a lady who was shopping for shoes, the more contemplative and mature older version of her was contrasted alongside the younger, feistier self. Maybe because of the similar vocal ranges of both characters, it was difficult to make out their singing. Perhaps it might have worked better if one character was an alto instead of two sopranos.
Japanese composer Naomi Sekiya’s Winds of Summer Fields was the most outstanding, albeit disturbing work presented. Sekiya set four poems of Emily Dickinson to music, which have central themes of insanity, pain and death. On top of three long-haired, gothic-looking singers dressed in black and reminiscent of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there were three other non-singing roles which added to the drama. These took the form of three dancers, dressed in black bottoms and white tops, writhing and twisting in a sinuous and sinister form, with creepy facial expressions to boot. Of the four poems-movements, the first and third were loud and thumping, while the second and fourth were more melancholic in nature, not unlike the nostalgia and longing evoked in slow English country folk songs.
To present four operas in two hours was not an easy feat, and one can only imagine the sheer amount of work that the musicians, singers and conductor Clarence Tan have put in. So kudos to Chamber.Sounds for yet another successful concert, and in their continuing effort of promoting new local music.

August 3, 2014

Four Musical Offerings..


Singapore turns 49 in less than a week! In celebration of our national day, Plink Plonk Plunk takes a look at what three of Singapore’s ensembles offer:

No new NDP theme song this year? There’s still a new song: “It’s Here, I’ll Stay” was written by local conductor/composer Kah Chun Wong and singer Jeremy Teng, and performed by the Asian Contemporary Ensemble and sung by Jeremy. The unique instrumentation (accordion, indian percussion, chinese flute, cello, guitar and piano) symbolises Singapore’s diverse cultures, and the video, filmed in various locations in Singapore, features cute stuffed toys!  

The second takes the form of a FREE CONCERT(!!!) at the Esplanade Concert Hall on the 10th of August at 3pm featuring works by local composers Zechariah Goh, Kelly Tang, Ho Chee Kong and Tsao Chieh, performed by Orchestra Collective, an independent musical ensemble presenting classical and wind band repertoire. Listen out for melodies from popular folk tunes and patriotic songs in this concert celebrating our country, directed by their music director, Lien Boon Hua.

The third and fourth are also free concerts by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. One of them is a lunchtime concert happening TOMORROW at 12:30pm at the newly refurbished Victoria Concert Hall (details found here), and the other is also on the 10th of August, 6pm at the Botanic Gardens Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage (details here). Works featured are popular classics such as Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture and the Simpsons theme, and also on the programme are Kelly Tang’s works Sketches of Singapore and an arrangement of Dick Lee’s Home.

Long weekend and don’t know what to do? Do a concert-hop from the Esplanade (3pm) to the Botanic Gardens (6pm) to end off celebrations with a bang!

Happy birthday, Singapore!! 

July 31, 2014

Chamber.Sounds presents: New Chamber Operas – An Advertisment

Chamber.Sounds presents: New Chamber Operas – An Advertisment

You’ve heard of a double- or a triple-bill, but what about a quadruple one? Chamber Sounds, a contemporary music ensemble of composers and musicians, is presenting four chamber operas in a single concert. Composers featured are from various countries, and the operas cover themes from shoe-shopping to the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Come, join them in an unforgettable night of music and drama on the 27th of August 2014 at the Esplanade Recital Studio Email or call Alicia (9367 5883) or Jeremiah (97828503) for tickets!

Or, if you can’t attend, support the musicians and composers by liking their Facebook page, following them on Youtube, or giving generously here.

July 26, 2014

Alternate Worlds – A Review

An edited version of this article will be published in The Straits Times on 28 July 2014.

Alternate Worlds 
Tze n Looking Glass Orchestra
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday 26 July 2014

Looking through the programme booklet, one gets a sense that largely self-taught composer and jazz pianist Tze Toh was trying to do too much with too little time. He had put together a “genre concert” of his compositions which promised video game music, jazz, funk, world music, choral works, film soundtracks and improvisations; these were to be performed by ensembles of various combinations: a saxophone quartet, a children’s choir, a string quartet, a wind quartet, a solo saxophone and the Looking Glass Orchestra (which was really an ensemble of 12 musicians). Throughout the concert Tze rushed around like a busy host, introducing the performers and the pieces either before or after each item, talking about the works as the crew set the stage.

Tze was at the piano for most of the concert, except for two pieces, Adventures of the Goggled Giraffe and Prelude to Avalon, which were played by 7-year-old Aone Ozaki. The former was a lively and comical miniature for piano orchestra, and the latter was a sentimental solo piano piece. Ozaki handled these expressively with sensitive pedalling and a varied touch, with no sign of nervousness.

Like the above mentioned pieces, many of the works were written with visuals in mind, evoking a scene, a mood, or a memory. Opening the concert was the two-movement Island of Spring, inspired by the music of film composer Ennio Morricone. Scored for boy solo, children’s choir and orchestra, Tze clearly knew how to exploit the various timbres to conjure up the lush imagery. The contemplative prelude which led into the joyous second movement could have been much better sustained by the visibly nervous choir and boy soloist Timothy Tan, but at the reprise of the opening theme they seemed to have warmed up and gained confidence, which made all the difference in sound. 

Mornings and A Thread Through Time were also poignant, nostalgic works scored for strings. The latter was composed for Royston Tan’s short film Popiah, and featured Christina Zhou as a violin soloist. Zhou’s tender and heartfelt playing was immediately transformed in the next piece, Passing Morning, a catchy jazz number which required the string quartet to play in a bluesy style. 

The other jazz works featured Teo Boon Chye on the saxophone and Wendy Phua on the electric bass. Most were improvisatory passages over a set chord progression. Although Teo was a master at improvising, belting out long complicated lines and sultry tunes, his intonation was less than perfect. Playing without first tuning, he remained annoyingly sharp whenever he played on the soprano saxophone. 

Jokingly mentioning that he improvised when he was too lazy to write music, Tze included two improvisations on the programme, which he performed with Teo. The first was more structured and had rhythms reminiscent of Albeniz’s Tango, while the second which ended off the concert was more fragile and delicate. Tze and Teo bounced ideas and themes off each other, creating music on the spot out of nothing.

Tze has shown that he can take any combination of instruments, any genre of music which he set out to write, and together with the Looking Glass Orchestra, create alternate worlds of sounds that are appealing to all ages. 
July 21, 2014

Composer profile – Tze Toh

“Then there’ll be a pot of gold beside you,” he joked, when I mentioned I was wearing a rainbow coloured top. Up-and-coming young composer Toh Tze Chin, or Tze (pronounced ‘Zee’ when Anglicised) as he would like to be known, was meeting me for the first time to talk about his works and upcoming concert.

Tze, who has a computer science degree, turned to music after working for 2 years and coming to the realisation that he didn’t want a desk bound job relating to his field of study. He then enrolled in Laselle-SIA college of the arts to pursue a music diploma, and has been composing and performing seriously since 2007, and his compositions have won awards and have been performed locally and overseas at international events.

Listening to his first album from 2011, Stories from Wonderland, his compositions come across as a blend of mostly jazz infused with local elements, a sort of ‘fusion’ music, and he likens his music to the local culture: unique, diverse and yet harmoniously co-existing side-by-side. He describes his music as diverse, from the melodic and lyrical, to descriptive and evocative soundscapes; from traditional/Indian music to jazz or classical influenced parts.

The Looking Glass ensemble had its beginnings as a trio (piano, saxophone, drums) with Indian violin, or with erhu (a Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument). In his search for an identity for a Singaporean’s music/a Singapore sound, he founded Tze n Looking Glass, inspired by the diverse cultures here and Singapore’s unique identity as a gateway between east and west, a melting pot of sorts, and started exploring with Indian and Chinese fusion. Tze decided one day to try putting both ethnic stringed instruments together with the jazz trio, and the rest, they say, is history. Of course the combination of Western, Indian and Chinese instruments was not without problems: all three use different tuning systems, different modes, and read different types of notation. The differences were eventually ironed out with a lot of time jamming together, listening, learning about each other’s cultures (in ethnic instruments, culture and even religion is inextricably linked with music) a bit of transcribing.

Because he was trained as a jazz pianist and mostly self-taught as a composer, the way he creates music is different from other classically-trained composers. He first imagines the sound world, then uses the instruments and textures to recreate what he imagines. His compositions are diverse but can be separated into two separate paths, fusion jazz and film music.

Tze counts video game music composer Nobuo Uematsu and film composers Ryuichi Sakamoto and Ennio Morricone as his primary influences. He is fascinated with the minimalist style which Sakamoto employs and the layering of textures in his music. He enjoys the challenge of writing music to fit a specific time limit, emotions and action. “In film music you have to be concise. It’s all about capturing the moments and feelings in the scene within the length of it. If it’s 15 seconds long then you only have 15 seconds to work your magic,” he explains. He has written for numerous animations as well as films; his most recent being the original score for filmmaker Royston Tan’s short film, Popiah.

When not writing for films, each of his compositions usually lasts longer than 5 minutes. He likens an experience when listening or performing music to a journey, an exploration into a ‘wonderland’ where the unexpected and impossible can happen. He expanded his Looking Glass Ensemble into an orchestra for the next album, Return to Wonderland. He had in mind an ‘epic’ sound which he wanted to create, and decided to try writing for an orchestra. There was one problem: he had no idea how to do so! He then got his hands on all the resources on scoring, orchestration and instruments he could find and read late into the night. The result was a highly successful Return to Wonderland concert and recorded album featuring the now expanded Looking Glass Orchestra directed by Tze, released in 2012. His upcoming concert, Alternate Worlds, sees the addition of a chorus into the mix. Since then, with the fluid nature of the ensemble and their appearance in many guises, Tze decided to shorten their name to Looking Glass, appearing as TLG, or Tze n Looking Glass.

Tze strongly believes in the transcendence of music across cultures, boundaries and genres, and that opportunities should be given to anyone who wants to try making music together. The TLG is a platform for classically and traditionally trained musicians to be able to experience other kinds of music, such as jazz, Indian music, Latin, and to learn how to improvise collectively. It is also a space for musicians of different backgrounds to interact and learn from each other. As such, he regularly holds music-jam sessions, and welcomes budding musicians who would like to join him.

In this upcoming concert, Alternate Worlds, musicians move out of their familiar territory to explore different kinds of music: the string quartet gets to explore funky blues, the wind quartet, video-game-soundtrack-inspired music, and the audience is in for a treat – to experience different musical worlds all in one concert from choral, film, jazz, latin to improvisations and more.

Come and watch Tze and the Looking Glass Orchestra in their concert Alternate Worlds | もうひとつの世界 happening next Saturday, 26 July 2014, at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Get yourself lost in the convergence of the different musical worlds as they explore jazz, tango, film, anime,  and video game music. Also presented will be a special performance of the film score for Royston Tan’s Popiah. Email to purchase tickets.

Meanwhile, here’s the trailer for their upcoming concert:

and the highlights from their Wonderland series:

July 20, 2014

Concerti I Solisti III – A Review

An edited version of this was published in The Straits Times with the heading ‘Budding talents shine with orchestra’ on 21 July 2014. 

Concerti I Solisti III
OMM/ Seow Yibin, conductor, Rebecca Lee, clarinet, Joshua Evan Lee, Lin Xiangning, piano
SOTA Concert Hall
19 July 2014 Saturday
With the increasing number of musicians in Singapore, it is heartening to see that they are given chances to perform solo, backed by an orchestra. Nine different solo works were presented across three concerts in the past week, two of which take the form of a piano concerto festival.
However, unlike the soloists of the piano concerto festival, the three who performed with the Orchestra of the Music Makers under the baton of Seow Yibin were chosen by merit: they were the winners an internal concerto competition held by the School Of The Arts (SOTA) earlier this year.
Opening the concert was Weber’s single-movement Concertino for Clarinet, op. 26 performed by Rebecca Lee. Although visibly nervous at first, Lee handled the the long-limbed melodic lines beautifully with a fine lyrical tone. The quicker sections she also tackled with aplomb, sometimes racing ahead and leaving the orchestra struggling to keep up.
Due to the shorter lengths of the solo works presented, the orchestra, too, was given a chance
in the spotlight with Shostakovich’s enigmatic Ninth Symphony. Composed just after the Second World War and initially intended as a long, large-scale work for chorus and orchestra, Shostakovich eventually wrote it as a short and compact symphony in the neo-classical style, combining classical elements with his whimsical and quirky harmonies.
Seow opted to conduct from memory, and this proved to be an advantage as the orchestra sounded tighter and more focused. Woodwinds were the strongest sections here, with the jaunty woodwind solos which peppered the first movement, the soulful clarinet solos that open the second movement. The brasses also showed solidarity as a section with a strong tone and perfect intonation as they duelled a slightly out-of-tune bassoon towards the end of the third movement. Also particularly notable was the brilliance of the flute and the trumpet in their solos.
From the iconic clarinet opening trill and glissando to the muted trumpet solos, it was as though the orchestra had morphed into a jazz orchestra during the intermission for Joshua Evan Lee’s rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The Rhapsody was a bluesy, laid-back affair, the performance every bit as suave as the young soloist who sauntered on stage in skinny black jeans and a matching blue-black coat and tie.
Lee took his time with the solos, deliberately but tastefully stretching his phrases with elastic freedom; and Seow was only too happy to indulge him. Here, the strings regained their confidence to produce a full, luscious sound for the slow theme in the second half. Due to the acoustics of the concert hall, it was a pity that the piano was often drowned out when the whole orchestra played loud passages together with it.
The more transparent orchestration in the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto allowed Lin Xiangning to fare a little better. Ably accompanied by the orchestra, Lin varied her touch and tone to switch effortlessly between the dramatic and the poetic themes, and played the running passages with precision and clarity. Bringing the concert to a feisty close, it was only during the cadenza that Lin unleashed her prowess, building up to the climax and suddenly sounding much more powerful than before.
It certainly remains to be seen in a few years how these budding young talents will progress, if given the right mentorship.
June 30, 2014

21st Singapore International Piano Festival Day 4: Piotr Anderszewski – A Review

21st Singapore International Piano Festival Day 4: Piotr Anderszewski – A Review
An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 1 July 2014 with the heading ‘Quirky Surprises at Every Corner’. 

21st Singapore International Piano Festival
Piotr Anderszewski
SOTA Concert Hall
29 June 2014

When it comes to interpreting Bach’s keyboard music, there are the purists who insist that it is a travesty when pianists use the pedal; there are the romantics who romanticise the music excessively with copious amount of pedalling and indulgent tempo fluctuations; and then there is Piotr Anderszewki.

The Polish pianist gave the closing recital to this year’s Piano Festival with three Bach suites on the programme, which sandwiched Schumann’s Eighth Novelette in F# minor and the second book of Janacek’s On An Overgrown Path.

The last and longest of Schumann’s novelettes is made up of many sections, encompassing multi-faceted characters of Schumann’s personality. Anderszewski unpacked the contrasting characters of passionate, quietly reflective and joyful into a comprehensible and completely accessible performance with clarity, intelligence and musical insight.

Janacek’s On An Overgrown Path are deeply private diary entries chronicling his life. Anderszewski showed a more personal and introspective side in the second volume, which comprises of five short and untitled pieces (nos, 10-15). In a lapse of concentration or slip of memory, he missed out no. 13 and went straight to no. 14. Realising his mistake, he inserted it after 14 without batting an eyelid and continued on. 
The highlight of the recital was most definitely the Bach suites. In playing them Anderszewski taunted, teased, caressed and cajoled the piano, daringly placing accents at the most unexpected of places to reveal hidden melodic lines and intentionally highlighting harmonic dissonances with the use of more pedal. Playing all of the repeats, he made sure to differentiate the first time from the second by embellishing them differently, adding in little melodic runs and turns. He sometimes seemed as if he was speeding and threatening to let go of the reins, but was always fully in control of every phrase. If anything, Anderszewski looked like he was enjoying himself the whole time, spontaneously improvising his way along and having much fun while doing so.
At every corner there were surprises, quirky things he did which worked for him, but probably only for him no one else even if they tried. The emotional heart of the recital was the Sarabande from the Sixth English suite, where the sensitivity of his touch and remarkable sense of voicing and balance resulted in a detached faraway sound. Also particularly memorable was the Gavotte from the same suite, where he repeated the melody an octave higher in the second time, making it sound as though played on a toy piano.
Persistent applause from the audience was rewarded with two encores – Bartok’s 3 Hungarian Folk songs from the Csík district and Bagatelles no. 1-3 from Beethoven Op. 126 – performed in the wholly original style of Anderszewski.

At the  post-concert autograph session where he kindly obliged my requests for autographs a picture with Sheep.

June 28, 2014

21st Singapore International Piano Festival Day 2: Behzod Abduraimov – A review

21st Singapore International Piano Festival
Behzod Abduraimov
SOTA Concert Hall
27 June 2014
Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit stands undisputed as one of the most technically demanding pieces in the standard repertoire for pianists, and it has always been a hot favourite for young, competition-winning pianists to include in their recital repertoire. Around this time last year I watched second-prize winner of the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition Louis Schwizgebel conclude his recital with it, and last evening, it brought 24-year old Behzod Abduraimov’s recital to a dazzling close. Having been catapulted into fame by his victory in the 2009 London International Piano Competition when he was only 18, Abduraimov has been establishing himself on an international level, giving performances worldwide and recording exclusively with Decca. Although he convincingly portrayed the seductive, watery world of Ondine and the hauntingly trance-like swaying of the body at the gallows at sunset in Le Gibet, Scarbo from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit was arguably the show stopper of the evening. The frenzied hand-crossing, repeated motifs and flashes of notes depicting a manic goblin disappearing and reappearing unpredictably were confidently tackled. 
It fit perfectly well in the programme, which had an underlying theme of death and the imagination of after-death experiences. The opening two works centred on the funeral march: Beethoven’s Twelfth Sonata in Ab major, Op. 26 whose third movement is a funeral march ‘on the death of a hero’, and Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49, which begins with a. funeral march. When one thinks of the term “funeral march”, what comes to mind is usually a weighty, sombre, and slow. Abduraimov was neither sombre nor slow, thundering through both works. Perhaps he could be forgiven for the Chopin as it is after all, a fantasy, but apart from the fast and loud, there was little much else to offer. The first movement of Beethoven was played with much restraint, but Abduraimov whirled through the second and fourth movements. His running notes often sounded muddy and muffled, perhaps due to the echoey acoustics of the hall coupled with misjudgements and over pedalling. To end off the first half, he showed his athletic prowess in the Saint-Saëns/Liszt/Horowitz Dans Macabre, a one-man orchestra conjuring up the diabolical scenes of skeletons dancing to the devil’s fiddle-playing. 
Aptly placed to open the second half was Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, placed in between the darker works as if a confession or form of atonement. Here, Abduraimov played with more sensitivity to the harmonic nuances and textures, but lacked the maturity that would turn his playing into a profoundly moving work. With his imagination, talent, and technical facility, one can definitely expect greater things from him in the years to come. 

June 27, 2014

21st Singapore International Piano Festival Day 1: Kun-Woo Paik – A review

21st Singapore International Piano Festival
Kun-Woo Paik
SOTA Concert Hall
26 June 2014
If Schubert wrote a song cycle for the piano, tonight’s programme would have been exactly it. Korean pianist Kun-Woo Paik’s recital comprised entirely of selected pieces from Schubert’s later piano works – the 6 Moments Musicaux D780, Vier Impromptus D980, and Drei Klavierstücke D946 – which he arranged into a specific order and played without breaks for applause, as if performing an entire song cycle.
Beginning with the soft, single melodic line after a unison note, Paik created the atmosphere of melancholic beauty as he brought the half-filled concert hall into the world of Schubert’s songs. The first of the four impromptus was sad, subdued and questioning, yet not overly indulgent or excessive. From there, just like how Schubert often put the parallel major after minor, Paik launched into the bright, sunny no. 3 of the Drei Klavierstücke, accelerating towards the calm middle section, then afterwards racing to the end.
The middle section of the second Moments Musicaux which followed brought to mind a Chopin nocturne, and the fourth played after sounded as though it had been a keyboard prelude lifted off from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier set! Later on, no. 2 from D946 proved a gripping, sincere and heartfelt rendition, contrasting the simple opening with the almost Beethovenian episode in the middle. With such a programme, Paik revealed the musical influences which Schubert was inspired by, and showed how later composers, in turn, drew from Schubert’s music.
The Eb-major impromptu (no. 2) was a slick, well-oiled roller-coaster ride, the undulating waves of notes unfurled with crystal clarity and control. Here, Paik rarely used the pedal unlike the Gb major impromptu (no. 3) before it.
Throughout the entire evening, Paik was ever sensitive in his playing, always intentionally singing out the melodies. He was a picture of grace and poise, maintaining a dignified composure at the piano while masterfully interpreting the music with a controlled passion. He clearly understood the geist of the works, carefully selecting his tempos and tastefully using rubato to bring forth a shaded, nuanced palette of colours from the Steinway.
The hymn-like chorale, no. 6 from D780, prayerfully and thoughtfully delivered as though a benediction, brought the recital to a close on a unison A-flat, neither major nor minor and unresolved, like the open-endedness of life’s questions which permeates Schubert’s works. 
June 22, 2014

Albert Lin: Reflections on our local classical music scene


Fellow Straits Times music critic, blogger, pianist and friend Albert Lin has penned a highly thought-provoking piece on the music scene in Singapore which deserves a re-post, so I’m posting it here. The original article can be found here.


Despite vast investments by the government into the arts and music education in Singapore, the annual President’s Young Performers Concert remains the one realistic opportunity for our young musicians to perform with the national orchestra. Over the years, it has featured both accomplished professionals and promising young students, ranging from violinists Chan Yoong-Han and Grace Lee to pianists Lim Yan and Abigail Sin. But one curious fact is that apart from violist Lim Chun in 2002, only pianists and violinists have been selected.

The obvious reason is that the piano and violin are seen as the glamour instruments of classical music, and are considered the conventional choice for soloists and hence would be easier on box-office sales. But if the purpose of this concert is to showcase the brightest talents on our shores, surely then the opportunity should go to the most deserving and not just the most popular? Why not feature a work by a promising composer too, considering the general lack of support the orchestra shows for them during their season? Attaching our country’s name to the orchestra does not give it a national identity, and their debut at the BBC proms will see our nation represented by a Chinese-American conductor with an American concertmaster and a Swiss soloist performing a concerto by a Chinese-American composer. Are we so ashamed of our own talents? Perhaps the powers that be behind the orchestra should take a leaf out of the playbook of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, whose recent tour of China featured our very own Jazz Impressario Jeremy Monteiro and works of composers Eric Watson, Kelly Tang, and Ho Chee Kong. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Yeh Tsung was hired by the SSO instead. And to add insult to injury, on Harrison Parrott’s (SSO’s management team for their proms appearance) website, it states that “in support of Singaporean talent, local musicians and composers feature prominently in the concert season.” What blatant hypocrisy. If they are so ashamed of locals, perhaps they should drop the word “Singapore” from their name and affix some ambiguous term like “Metropolitan” to it instead.

According to a former arts administrator, featuring local talents brings down the standard of the event. An interesting point considering this said person inserts herself into SSO chamber series programmes whenever possible, and she no longer does it for a living. If the consensus is that engaging a foreign artist is a safer option, one must not have witness the debacle that was Li Yundi doing his best David Helfgott impersonation in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and whose rumoured fee would have funded the amount SSO pays to its President’s Young Performers for the next 40 years.

This attitude has unfortunately rubbed off on other musical groups in Singapore, unconsciously or otherwise. Before I continue any further, I must reiterate that I have no problem against the presence of foreign musicians. Singapore has benefitted greatly and some of these musicians have made it a point to contribute to the society that welcomed them with open arms. Spaniard flautist Roberto Alvarez has single-handedly transformed the landscape of flute playing in Singapore, and violinists Alexander Souptel and Zhang Zhen Shan have trained a legion of prize winners. The argument is not whether foreigners or locals are better, but against the belief that foreigners are better not based on merit but because their passports are of a different colour.

But if these groups are dipping their hands into the coffers of the National Arts Council, whose kitty comes from taxes paid by Singaporeans, then they have a duty to do more for the locals. Or are we only good enough for them to take money from and nothing else? It’s bad enough that their sense of self-entitlement sees them demand that society subsidize their hobby.

It is telling that the SSO ceased its partnership with the Public Service Commission and stopped awarding scholarship holders a place in the orchestra upon graduation. And since then, how many Singaporeans have joined them? Oh, sure they hire locals when they need freelance players to fill the space, but that’s only if they’re desperate for numbers while their more established players go on leave for concerts nobody wishes to play for. How many born-and-bred Singaporeans currently play in the orchestra? A whopping 12!

Can you imagine an American orchestra with only 10% of its members local? Being globalized means that the influx of foreigners is inevitable, but it does not mean that locals and foreigners do not stand on equal footing. Are some of the foreigners being hired better than our locals? And we are not even talking about cheaper alternatives. So if the hired guns are neither better nor cheaper, it indeed is puzzling as to why they were preferred.

What’s the point of spending all that cash on lavish events such as Singapore Day in London (which interestingly is not open to public unless you have a Singaporean friend) or the Singapore Biennale? To prove a point that Singaporeans are only worth celebrating when there’s an incentive to do so? Or is it meant to placate the dissenting voices? To claim that enough is being done for local musicians/artists based on one-off events is akin to saying that one is an excellent spouse because you bought your partner flowers on his/her birthday, while sleeping with his/her best friend for the other 364 days of the year.

Why are we encouraging our youngsters to pursue an education/career in music, if we are here putting roadblocks up for them when they return? Are we just creating a market to support ourselves? So that we create an environment where we have enough students interested in music enough to purchase concert tickets?

What exactly awaits them when they do return to Singapore? How many talents are being laid to waste playing in random orchestras and playing wedding gigs? How many choose to not even return at all?

It indeed is their perogative if they prefer to hire foreigners, but they should also cut the pretence about supporting local talent and do away with patronizing events such as the President’s Young Performers concert which often sees the orchestra under-prepared and concertmaster missing from action.

If this is the blueprint for the future of the Arts in Singapore, then we are doomed. Right now it is not about culture, but creating a money-spinning industry aligned with the rest of Singapore.

June 20, 2014

Beethoven/Katsaris Concerto no. 5, ‘Emperor’ – CD Review

Beethoven/Katsaris Concerto no. 5, ‘Emperor’ – CD Review
Sometimes, in a concerto, the orchestra gets all the good parts – and the role of the soloist is to accompany the orchestra by playing arpeggios and other embellishments while the other instruments belt out the heart-on-your-sleeve melody. One case in point is the second movement of Brahms’ violin concerto where, after woodwinds set the stage, the melody enters, profound, gorgeous and unassumingly innocent, only that it is not by the solo violin, but the first oboe. The long oboe solo is so complete and self-sufficient — what more needs to be said? — that violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate refused to perform the work, remarking, “I don’t deny that it’s fairly good music, but does anyone imagine that I’m going to stand on the rostrum, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the Adagio?”

French-Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris has transcribed and recorded a solo version of Beethoven’s Concerto no. 5 in E-flat, Emperor, explaining his reasons in the CD sleeve notes for doing so:

… I have always felt a degree of frustration regarding the magnificent introductory tutti in the first movement, which is the exclusive preserve of the orchestra. Naturally I was appalled not to find it in the piano score, and so I determined to appease my (avowedly selfish!) 55-year-old longing by making this transcription…

On the CD is two versions of the Emperor concerto, one version conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and accompanied by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and the other, a world premiere recording of the solo piano arrangement. Katsaris is no stranger to transcriptions, especially those of Beethoven’s music, having been the first to record Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s entire Symphony cycle between 1983-89 on Teldec. This disc is produced by Katsaris’ own Piano21 label instead of a bigger or more commercial recording company.

Katsaris’ arrangement fills in the grand orchestral tutti parts with tremolos and octaves, and plays them with such great energy and drive that the outer movements are considerably faster than the orchestral versions. In fact, sacrilegious as it may sound, if listening to the solo piano transcription as background music, one might not even notice the absence of the orchestra!

After a while, though, one gets a sense that Katsaris might be trying too hard to produce an orchestral sound on the piano, with the tremolandos and hammering out the block chords. In the first movement, especially at sections where the piano echoes the orchestra or vice versa in short phrases, the timbre of the orchestra is missed, and the chords repeated on the piano seem inevitably pointless. The adagio is an oasis of calm and beauty, its transparent textures providing respite from the pounding in the outer movements. There were snatches of sensitivity in places, but the need for ‘being’ an orchestra overtakes that at times.

Katsaris is fleet-footed and nimble in the rondo. His transcription tries convincingly to differentiate between the piano and the orchestra part by adding thicker textures and more notes into the orchestral parts, but it results in those passages sounding cluttered and dense. Still, his playing is marked with clarity and vigour, although he is not the most subtle of pianists.

This CD is probably only a must-get for fans of the Liszt piano transcriptions of orchestral music or fans of the Emperor concerto, otherwise, one is not missing out on much.

Rating: 3.5/5

This CD will be available for purchase from 7 July 2014.

June 10, 2014

The Philharmonic Orchestra presents… I hear the water dreaming – An Advertisment

The Philharmonic Orchestra presents… I hear the water dreaming – An Advertisment

Unlike music of other countries or states and as distinct as it is, it is practically impossible to generalise Asian music in a single word. The diversity in styles stem from the culture, religion and beliefs of the composers. To highlight the range of styles of Asian music, The Philharmonic Orchestra is embarking on a new concert series, one which features only Asian composers. The first in the series is titled I Hear the Water Dreaming.

For centuries, rivers and seas have served as the heart of human civilisation, enabling the movement of people, commerce, and culture across vast distances. Elemental and poetic, they have also long provided an oasis of artistic inspiration. Smetana’s symphonic poem Die Moldau from his set of six symphonic poems Ma Vlast (or My Fatherland) traces the course of the Vltava river from its beginnings as two streams merging, through landscapes, events and scenery until its end in the Elbe. Strauss’ An der schönen blauen Donau (more commonly known as the Blue Danube Waltz) and Xian Xinghai’s Yellow River Cantata which the Yellow River Piano Concerto was based on, are also examples of works which have been inspired by water.

TPO embarks on an exploration of Asian orchestral works contemplating the theme of water – works by pioneering Singaporean composers Leong Yoon Pin and Phoon Yew Tien feature alongside Toru Takemitsu’s I Hear The Water Dreaming and Zhu Jian’er’s A Wonder of Naxi. Join TPO in this unique survey of music fusing the traditional and contemporary, Asian and Western. Featuring soloists Jasper Goh on the flute and Derek Koh on the yangqin, the unique repertoire makes this concert one not to be missed! It takes place on the 14th of June at the SOTA Concert Hall at 7.30pm. Get your tickets from Sistic now! Tickets are priced at $22.

June 9, 2014

Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers presented by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra – A Review

Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers presented by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra – A Review

I attended this concert with a friend, whom I encouraged to contribute a review as a guest writer as well. Her review is shown below mine. 

Sheep is excited to attend his first movie screening with live orchestra!
He was also hoping to see sheep in the movie because it was filmed
in New Zealand.. 

The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, Vocal Associates Festival Chorus and Children’s Choir, Justin Freer, conductor
The Star Performing Arts Centre/ Saturday, 1pm, 7 June 2014

Although nothing compared to Richard Wagner’s 4-opera, 17-hour-long Der Ring des Niebelungen, attempting to perform the trilogy was still quite a feat, especially having to synchronise live music to a film. It was fitting that Howard Shore wrote for almost Mahlerian forces (over 250 musicians in the orchestra, choir and children’s’ choir combined) and about 9 hours’ worth of music with interlocking themes and motifs for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I hesitate to use the term accompany here because the OST is, in my opinion, much more than mere accompaniment — it sets the scenes, conveys emotions, and, in the case of LOTR, is probably as important as the spoken dialogue. Even then, wouldn’t the recorded film music do? After all, it was recorded by none less than the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and movie tickets are much cheaper…

Perhaps this was the point that director Chan Tze Law and Metropolitan Festival Orchestra were trying to prove in staging the screening of the LOTR trilogy with live performance of the soundtrack, so as to increase the awareness of the role of film music. They were joined by the Vocal Associates Festival Chorus and children’s choir, prepared by Khor Ai Ming. The Two Towers continues from where the Fellowship of the Ring, which was staged around this time last year, left off. The 5000-seater venue was slightly over half filled for the matinee show, but because of the sheer size of the hall and for balance of sound, microphones were placed at every desk of the orchestra. Immediately that amplifies (no pun intended!) the problems faced — even if the musicians played and sung their best, the ones responsible for sound were still those sitting behind the sound console.

The mix was often erratic and inconsistent; although woodwinds and were brasses sufficiently loud, the strings, especially the lower strings, were often overpowered by the other sounds in the first half. When the spotlight was turned on them, however, they projected a luscious sound and conjured up the imagery of the scenes well. In fact, the same can be said for the entire orchestra: the versatility in their sound was impressive, notably that of the horns. From the heartfelt, tender and lyrical to the menacing and sinister, they were together in setting the atmosphere for the action onscreen. Particularly noteworthy also, were the poignant and melancholic English horn solos by Veda Lin.

Despite not having a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle for the Rohan solos, concertmaster Chan Yoong Han used the higher strings of the violin to successfully recreate the rustic timbre. Also cleverly substituted was a yangqin for a dulcimer. A distressed piano was another interesting instrument featured, where the strings of the piano were struck with metal chains.

The chorus was mostly out-of-tune when singing in parts, but when singing in unison, especially at the final scenes of the battle at Helms Deep, they exuded majesty and strength. Soprano Rosalind Waters was a let-down. In the Rivendell scenes, laments and final Gollum’s song, her intonation was unstable, and her voice lacked the character or the ethereal, other-worldly quality required. The added reverb to enhance her voice only made the quivers in her voice more obvious. Boy soprano Samuel Yuen was delight to listen to. From where we were seated in the stalls, he stood up to the height of a seated orchestra member, and even with the spotlight on him, he remained hidden from our sight. His voice soared beautifully above the choir with absolute purity of tone. Maybe what he really needed, in Legolas’ words, was a box to stand on!

If the exciting final instalment in future is a success, why not do the Star Wars series next? 🙂

At lunch before the concert. The press kit came with a
beautiful blue MFO pen!


Tessa and I after the concert

Review written by Tessa Khew, a Tolkien fan, English Literature graduate and teacher:

The Partial Plebian LOTR Concert Review

I attended the Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers Orchestra Concert by the Metropolitian Festival Orchestra in the capacity of one wedged between the statuses of regular concert-goer and reviewer. I know my penultimate sentence is marked with loaded terms that can echo the endless debate on what makes a reviewer and whatnot, but let’s reserve that can of worms for other platforms. My in-between status stemmed from the fact that my foremost intention was to enjoy the film with an added performance dimension but 6 years of MEP education had ingrained in me an instinct to view the concert as a musical endeavour too.

In all honesty, what struck me first upon entering The Star’s Performing Arts Centre was the sheer number of musicians and instruments on stage. This surprise was in part due to the 7 year gap between the present and my last attendance at an orchestral performance, yet it was a timely reminder of how much work goes behind producing an OST. Another aspect that surprised me was how little rest the musicians had as the movie progressed. There was nary a still moment on stage; even the seemingly quieter parts of the movie were bolstered by controlled, soft tremolos from the strings. I’d dare say the effort at producing an OST is no less than the producing the theatrics of the movie, and it is a pity that the accompanying music is often overlooked. Raising such an awareness is perhaps one of the best takeaways from such concerts, for by extension it may lead to an increased recognition for musicians and their craft.

The film commenced in perfect sync with the orchestra’s rendition of the opening theme and much credit must be given to the efforts at replicating the original film experience. For one, a Chinese instrument, the Yang Qin, was roped in to support the percussion section as it drummed up the battle atmospheres. The concert master utilized open strings and more distinct bow strokes to bring to life the Norwegian fiddle’s role in introducing picturesque Rohan. Samuel Yuen’s return to his role as the boy soprano was an A+ textbook performance. The ethereal tone of his voice resonated as it pitched, perfectly, one note after another, perhaps a testament of the many times he practiced to the original sound track. Such attention to detail led to an easy viewing of The Two Towers in which I found myself forgetting I was not in a cinema. Suffice to say, concerts such as these would be good introductory sessions for newcomers to orchestral music.

However, considering such concerts from the viewpoint of one who has experience with music would yield a different conclusion. If even my amateur ears could be unsettled by the off pitch harmonies by the chorale in its opening lines, I’m sure the alliance of Legolas’ and Aragorn’s beauty combined would not be enough to keep the attention of a more seasoned individual at that moment. Another incident that would have distracted such an individual was Rosalind Waters’ solo performance. Water’s vocal timbre was rich but with a rough edge that would have nailed a Broadway role. It was unfortunate that such a style was misaligned with the clear resonance that this role called for, and the mismatch was most pronounced during the closing item where the enunciation of the lyrics left much to be hoped for. Yet all these might only be of concern to one whose instincts naturally divert their ears from Tolkein’s rich poetic dialogue at the presence of music.

Nevertheless, I can safely say that I left this concert with a rekindled passion in orchestral music and certainly feeling that I got my money’s worth from watching both film and performance. I am hoping the Metropolitian Festival Orchestra persists with such style of concerts and enliven the film appreciation and classical music awareness in Singapore.

May 27, 2014

In Good Company – A Review

In Good Company – A Review

An edited version of this article appeared in The Straits Times on 26 May 2014 with the heading ‘Musicians’ Good Company’.

Loh Jun Hong, Violin, Abigail Sin, Piano, Lin Juan, Cello
Esplanade Recital Studio/ Saturday 24 May 2014

Salon-style concerts harken back to the 17th-century, where music was played and ideas were exchanged in smaller, more cosy locations. As if to recreate the salon setting, violinist Loh Jun Hong, pianist Abigail Sin and cellist Lin Juan took turns to perform more intimate chamber works in this themed concert.

Three beanbags, two wooden little tables with a bottle of wine and champagne flutes on them made the recital studio appear more homey. The invisible barrier between performer and audience was also lessened as the trio took turns to speak about the works they played, giving anecdotes and personal takes on why they liked and picked them.

the opening Handel-Halvorsen duel

Perhaps due to nerves from having to speak to the audience and then perform, the opening Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for violin and cello, also possibly the most technically challenging work on the programme, was messy in the faster parts and had numerous intonation issues. That seemed to have been Lin’s baptism of fire as he was welcomed into More Than Music, a new and growing society of musicians founded by Loh and Sin last year with the aim of creating an enjoyable concert-going experience for the audience.

Lin and Sin tackle the Schumann while Loh listens
on a comfy beanbag

From there however, the evening only got better. The buoyant freshness of the outer movements of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata for violin and piano, and the poetic lyricism of Schumann’s Three Fantasy Pieces for cello and piano displayed the quiet elegance and high standards of musicianship each of them had.

All three played with a maturity which belied their youthful countenance, but the star of the evening was undoubtedly Sin. She remained a solid accompanist throughout, and her rendition of Faure’s Theme And Variations for piano was so thoughtfully planned and wonderfully executed from beginning to end – the enigmatic and beautiful prayer-like ending – that it left the almost-full recital studio in a long moment of captivated silence before the applause began.

The concert officially ended with the trio performing the little-known and rarely-performed Phantasie by English composer Frank Bridge. Most impressive was their understated virtuosity. While Lin offered the most exquisite singing lines on his cello between impassioned episodes, Loh’s charismatic playing and Sin’s impeccable control of the piano resulted in an engaging and intellectual musical conversation.

Continuous applause from the audience was rewarded with an encore from each of the performers: Saint-Saëns’ The Swan by Lin, Preludes no. 3 and 4 from Chopin’s Opus 28 set by Sin, and Piazzolla’s catchy Nightclub 1960 tango by Loh.

This evening’s concert was not only highly enjoyable, but also memorable. One can be sure that they are definitely ‘in good company’ around such talented young musicians!

Photo credits: Abigail Sin and her father

May 23, 2014

Flights of Fantasy by Anderson and Roe – An Advertisement

Flights of Fantasy by Anderson and Roe – An Advertisement

Some classically-trained musicians have dared to venture away from the world of classical music. Sometimes the results aren’t always the best (cue cheesy Bond quartet music), but at other times, some collaborations produce the most remarkable and sometimes even fun results. I have always liked Jacques Loussier for jazzing up every work he plays, and recently, the PianoGuys and Gabriela Montero have caught my attention.

In the same vein, duo pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, better known as Anderson and Roe, play practically everything from baroque to ragtime, Rimsky-Korsakov to Radiohead. Having missed their 2012 concert because I was still in the UK (read Pianomaniac’s review here), I’m really quite excited to watch their concert here this year.

On this year’s menu is a good mix of classical and contemporary, all fresh, original arrangements of popular favourites such as Saint-Saens’ The Swan, Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and even Radiohead’s Paranoid Android! Also included on the programme are selections from their latest CD, An Amadeus Affair.

FLIGHTS OF FANTASY promises to be an evening of high-octane entertainment and fun for both classical and contemporary music enthusiasts alike. So come, and be enthralled by the dynamic pianism and creativity of Anderson and Roe! One night only, on the 13th of June at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets are available from Sistic and priced from $58 to $158. 
May 21, 2014

Bach Ahead by re:mix – A Review


An edited version of this article appeared in the Straits Times on 20 May 2014 with the heading ‘Playful, spirited Bach’.

re:mix, Foo Say Ming, director/violin, Lim Yan, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday 18 May 2014

For a group that is known for their rather adventurous and eclectic concert programmes, re:mix’s programme this time seemed more ordinary than usual: a Bach-themed evening. But perhaps they were trying to prove the versatility of Bach’s music – that it can be taken and orchestrated or arranged for virtually any combination of instruments and transcend culture and genres, still remaining accessible to all.

Leopold Stokowski’s richly-scored transcription of Bach’s Aria from his Orchestral Suite in D Major, BWV 1068, more commonly known as the ‘Air on a G String’ opened the concert with the cellos singing out the melody soulfully while accompanied by the pizzicato notes from a solo double bass. Because of the small size of the ensemble and the tempo selected, re:mix handled this arrangement charmingly, seamlessly passing the melody line to and fro between the cellos and first violins without the excessiveness and overwrought sentimentality usually associated with Stokowski’s arrangements.

Director Foo Say Ming then took the spotlight in Bach’s Fourth Violin Sonata in C Minor BWV 1017 from the set of six sonatas for Violin and Keyboard, accompanied by Lim Yan on the piano. Rather than the role of accompaniment, however, the keyboard meets in equal terms with the violin, the keyboardist’s right hand as if taking on the part of another solo treble instrument, and the left, the part of the basso continuo. In the opening siciliano, the warm, mellifluous tone of Foo’s violin floated gently above the undulating waves of accompanying semiquavers, beautifully and elegantly shaped by Lim. In the slower middle movement however, as Lim worked to create a pastel blend of colours on the piano, Foo sounded almost bored and a little impatient. The second and fourth movements were delightfully fast. Both Lim and Foo performed with youthful vigour, exchanging playful banter. The presence of a pulse was always well-defined, but never rigid. Foo was not afraid to use touches of rubato in places, and Lim was always at one with him, sensitive to the balance and pedalling with subtlety.

The highlight of the evening was Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra. Mendelssohn had been instrumental in the revival and promotion of Bach’s music in the 1800s, and Bach’s influence can be heard throughout this work. Foo and Lim were much bolder, and delivered a spirited performance, revelling in one another’s musicianship in the miniature romantic quasi-character pieces that Mendelssohn writes in between orchestral episodes. The ensemble was also ably led by concert mistress Lee Shi Mei when the soloists were busy handling the technically demanding figurations.

In the composition of this concerto, Mendelssohn bridges the old and the new, not unlike re:mix’s continuing efforts in bridging the gap between classical music and popular culture.

May 19, 2014

On Stones, Sand and Light… Questions with Quinnuance, Composers’ edition 2014

On Stones, Sand and Light… Questions with Quinnuance, Composers’ edition 2014

Last friday, this resident kaypoh caught up with the composers of Quinnuance over brunch to find out about their upcoming concert which happens on the 30th of May.

 Hello guys! The last time we spoke was this time last year when you had your concert ‘looking deep into our roots’. Since then there seems to be a few changes to Quinnuance, including your very own conductor! Care to tell us more about this?

Bernard: After last year’s concert, two of our members had increasing outside commitments which left them little time for composing; they decided to come out from the group. Meanwhile, Clarence had just come back from Sydney after finishing his masters in conducting. His passion and vision for contemporary new music in Singapore was a perfect match for our group of contemporary young composers. As composers, we can now just concentrate on composing our music and leave the hassle of instrumentalists’ conflicting schedules for rehearsals and actual rehearsing to him. (Laugh) Then this year we are also excited to rope in Terrence Wong, whom we have known for a long time.

Terrence: For me, it’s the first time I’m participating in this project. It’s also my first time that I’m presenting a chamber piece in a non-school, public performance, and also my first time being part of a group that has to organise our own concert. In many ways it’s a lot of firsts for me in one group and I hope that I can contribute to the dynamic quality of Quinnuance.

Alicia: Yep, there has been some changes. As mentioned by Bernard, 2 of our members — Ernest and Enning — needed time off for their personal commitments and it so happened that Clarence was back from his conducting studies in Sydney and was very keen to help promote new music and the works of local composers. Hence we roped him in. Also, we had wanted to work with Terrence for some time now, but the opportunity never really came up, till now.

Has the group dynamic changed in any way?

Bernard: One less older chap and one less lady, and an addition of one young chap and another heading towards mid-life crisis with pot belly, the dynamic sure has changed a fair bit. Ha… (laugh)

Alicia: I don’t think there’s any major change in the group dynamic at the moment. I think it’s actually a little too early to tell? Afterall, it is a first time we have come together with Clarence and Fei Yang. So perhaps, after working together for a more projects, we can let you know again?

Lu Heng: Well, I guess it’s definitely different with the presence and creative input from Terrence and Clarence and sans those of Ernest and Enning, but I suppose it’s not too dissimilar since we have the same alma mater! Although it may be the first time we are working together in this particular collective, it’s definitely not the first day we know each other, and our shared memories as fellow composers and friends over the past decade or so has allowed us to anticipate and adapt to each other’s quirks and working styles.

What’s it like having a conductor in the group?And Clarence, how do you feel about not being a composer like the rest? 

Bernard: Having a conductor in the group means if the performance turn out bad, we can point fingers at him and say he’s the reason the music sounds bad. (Sorry, Clarence) (Laugh)

Terrence: I think it’s a pretty interesting experience working with someone who specialises in working with musicians to get the music out. Not that we composers have no experience with that, but having a specialist in his field gives us valuable insight into the practical aspects and possibilities (and impossibilities!) in the execution of our works.

Alicia: Personally, I always enjoy the process of the musicians “discovering” the piece through the musical motifs and gestures, before getting into a discussion/dialogue with them about the meaning etc. during rehearsals as it’s an interesting reflection of our thought processes as musicians. So now with a conductor (music director) present, there another perspective involved. This may just provide an added dimension to the discussion and it allows me as a composer to step away from my composition and see it in another light (which I may or may not have considered in the initial planning or composing process).

Clarence: All composers in Quinnuance are unique. It is interesting working together to tie their offerings to present a good concert. Like any organisation, an assortment of skills are required to drive successful projects and goals. Being a non-composer allows me to realise their works in the best possible way. After my studies in Sydney it’s indeed great to be approached to direct projects such as these. However, working with peers as your boss is not easy. You would not want to disappoint them, but that will not happen, Bernard! Quinnuance’s music is all unique and shall be delivered to their best during the concert. The advantage of directing such a program is the opportunity to learn personally from living composers. 

This year looks like it’s going to be bigger and better: you’ve changed venue from the usual Living Room @ The Arts House to the Esplanade Recital studio, with room for many more people! Do you think that the local audience and arts scene is becoming more receptive to new music?

Bernard: It would be like saying just because there are audiences who went for “Ah Boy to Men” Musical and now we have an increased number of people who likes musical. To gauge whether local audiences are more receptive to new music will not be apparent till another few more years or even a decade to see if that reception has increased. In my opinion, non musician audience who are not trained in music are more likely to accept the sound of contemporary new music. These audiences come to listen with unbiased ears and without baggage, thus making them more likely to appreciate the sound and music produced.

Having said that, we moved to a bigger venue so we can sell more tickets! (Laugh) Just kidding. Well, if we are going to get more people interested in contemporary new music, it’ll be good to have a space for more potential audiences to come. It’s a challenge for our young group, but we’ll see how it goes. Moreover, it’s good that we can finally have some playing of lights and a professional production team from Esplanade to assist us.

Terrence: I think the local audience, be they part of the arts scene or otherwise, is opening up -albeit slowly- towards new music. I feel that we as artists cannot wait for audiences to come to us; we have to go out to promote new music in a way that also appeals to a part of the general audience, be it in familiar sounds, stories or emotions…in that way, they will slowly accept that new music (and art) is a way of life and need not necessarily be repulsive or boring.

Alicia: Like what Terrence has mentioned, our local audience is slowly opening up to new music and being receptive towards local composers and musicians. Having our concert this year at the Esplanade is really us reaching out and encouraging more people.

Lu Heng: More musicians and ensembles have been putting up more concerts featuring more new music and naturally both performers and audiences have been warming up to it gradually. It’s relatively niche and would take some time, but there is definitely progress.

Stones, sand, and light: sounds very close to nature.. what’s the inspiration behind this year’s theme? 

Bernard: Actually it was proposed to be Stones, Sand, Time and Light. But it’ll be a mouthful, so we took away the “Time”, as it’s already implied in Stones, Sand and light. These were used in ancient days to measure time. Music is about the soundwaves that travel though time and space. With every note played on an instrument, sound is produced by vibration of air columns whose energy would disperse through that space and over a length of time.

Also, it is a continuation from last year’s theme, “looking deep into my roots”. After seeking the roots, a seedling needs soil to grow, soil which consists of stones and sand, and nurtured by sunlight. Another way of looking at this is to say that roots are infants, and after growing, we are now at toddler stage where we start to explore the surroundings and play with stones and sand. This is a way of charting our growth process as a group of young composers.

Alicia: I guess Bernard explained it best! (Laughs)

Lu Heng: We had collectively agreed to build upon the theme of our concert last year (“Looking Deep Into Our Roots”) and, after toying around with a few variations, settled on “Stones, Sand and Light” as suitable subject matter to transition into? Literally, moving from our roots underground to stones, sand and light above ground? (laughs)

How do your compositions relate to the theme?
Bernard: If you read my programme note, you’ll know that my work is about the time, this work is the 3rd of the series of work for a quartet of instruments that deals with time. It’s about the future and culmination of several ideas from the previous two works. So the theme of the concert implies on time, my work is about time, so there’s the relation.

Terrence: (d)evolution traces the construction and deconstruction of sound from a simple minor scale and Morning Dances depicts a dance of light – both pieces help to give life and imagery to the term ‘light’.

Alicia: My composition (not telling you guys the title, come to the concert to find out!) is quite literally based on the theme of the concert. As Bernard explained earlier about our conception of the concert theme, Time seems to be the underlying link to all three elements. And Time, in the sense of the past, a very distant past where stones, sand and light played an important role in people’s life…

Lu Heng: I personally identified with the transformative processes taken to get from stone to sand, and the binding factor of particles in sand (silica) and light (photons), in relation to my piece.

Finally, complete the sentence in your own way – Stick and stones may break my bones….

Bernard: Huh? That’s lame. (laugh) Ok, if you insists. Stick and stones may break my bones, but it’ll not stop my eyes to open in the hour of autumn. [editor’s note: Bernard’s piece is titled ‘Let the eyes open in the hour of autumn]

Terrence: …but even so, you can use the sticks, stones and my bones to play some exciting percussive sounds!

Alicia: But Sand and Light may make me whole!

Lu Heng: But put them together (stems and noteheads) and they form tones!

Brunch at Plaza Singapura’s Dome with the composers of Quinnuance.

Catch Quinnuance at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 8pm on the 30th of May 2014!  Get your tickets by emailing or by contacting Alicia (93675883) or Lu Heng (96392100). Tickets are priced at $22 each, and discounts are available for groups of 4 and above.

April 25, 2014

More than Music Presents: In Good Company – An Advertisment

More than Music Presents: In Good Company – An Advertisment

In the 18th century, concert-going was a social affair. People would walk in and out of concert halls whenever they wanted, there might have been dogs running around, and audience chatting or playing bridge between and during pieces. Then in the 19th century, a hush fell upon the concert hall – composers were increasingly seen as artists, an idol to be respected. They presented more musically challenging works to listen to, works for posterity that were emotionally draining to listen to, yet uplifting and inspiring.

Thus the music and socialising got taken to the fashionable cafes or drawing rooms instead, where, at salons or soirées, instrumental music of a light, pleasing, and often sentimental character was played in an informal setting.

Violinist Jun Hong Loh and pianist Abigail Sin were inspired by successful concert presenters such as Young Concert Artists in New York, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, as well as festivals such as the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. The YCA, an artist management firm, attracted the best musicians under 30 from around the world. Every concert was branded by each individual star’s excellence and personality. For them, it was always wonderfully exciting to see the best talents gather together to perform in YCA events. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had a roster of established musicians who would be called on to give concerts together but not just as soloists; in a single concert, they would get to see duos, solos, trios and even quartets, all combined into one event. Thus, they decided to bring back the Salon-style setting in organising this concert series More than Music, which focuses on the entire audience experience, in an informal setting. In this coming concert ‘In Good Company’, cellist Lin Juan joins them for a programme of duos and trios.

Join Jun Hong, Abigail and Lin Juan at the Esplanade Recital Studio on the 24th of May 2014, and relive the golden age of salon music with popular music played in the style that was the height of fashion in the grand European cafés of the early twentieth century! Get your tickets from Sistic now!

April 21, 2014

Back to Bach – A Review

Back to Bach – A Review

An edited version of this article appeared in the Straits Times on 21 April 2014 with the heading ‘Powerful Performance Back to Bach’.

Back to Bach
Kenneth Hamilton, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday

Natalie Ng

Because he played a programme full of lesser-known composer Alkan’s works at his recital last year, Scottish virtuoso pianist Kenneth Hamilton explained that he returned this year with a concert centred around Bach, arguably the most famous composer of all time. Speaking in between pieces, Hamilton introduced each work, giving humorous anecdotes about the composers and pieces before performing.

The recital opened and ended with two monumental Liszt works, the Fantasy on B-A-C-H and the emotionally charged Variations on Bach’s ‘Weinen, klagen’; and within the opening chords he showed, despite his lanky frame, a powerful presence in his playing, building up a massive wall of sound. The Variations were aptly prefaced by the Busoni-Bach choral prelude Ich Ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, which fit thematically and musically.

For most of the evening it was as though the Steinway piano in the Recital Studio had been transformed into a grand five-manual organ in a majestic cathedral – Hamilton gave a technically, intellectually and musically commanding performance, emphasising the qualities of harmonic daring and refinement in the Liszt, and showing sheer intensity in Busoni’s arrangement of the Chaconne. When he performed nothing could disturb his concentration, not even the constant clicking from the piano’s damper pedal every time it was depressed during the entire duration of the first half.

As though a palate-cleanser from the excesses of Romanticism, the only ‘proper Bach’ featured was the Fifth French Suite in G. Unlike the Liszt Fantasy before it, he sat unmoving over the keyboard, used the pedal sparingly, and teased out the delicate textures, playing the slower Sarabande and Loure in a quasi-improvisatory manner.

Busoni’s arrangement of the three choral preludes Brahms wrote before his death were a reflection of Bach’s, and proved to be a sweet and sentimental opening to the second half of the programme. Following it was a witty rendition of Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the E Major Solo Violin Partita, for as much as it tried to be Bachian, the sparkly prelude and fast-paced gigue sandwiching the leisurely gavotte kept giving away Rachmaninoff’s quirky side.

Bringing an end to the recital was a suitably appropriate encore, the slightly indulgent Percy Grainger arrangement of John Dowland’s Now, O Now, I Needs Must Part, originally a sixteenth century part song for voices. The back of the programme booklet shows a cartoon of Hamilton at the piano, facing the reader with a speech bubble saying, “I’ll be Bach”, a pun on the word ‘back’. With such innovative programmes and a wide fan base, one can be sure that he would, indeed, be back to perform in the years to come.

A post-concert picture with Prof. Hamilton outside the recital studio. After two years and two email interviews, I finally got to meet him in person 🙂

April 16, 2014

“I’m annoyed by almost anything played on an electric guitar…” – interview with Scottish piano virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton

“I’m annoyed by almost anything played on an electric guitar…” – interview with Scottish piano virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton

Scottish piano virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton returns to Singapore to perform an all Bach recital! Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with the professor in an email interview ahead of his recital here.

Hello again Prof. Hamilton, congratulations on last year’s sold-out performance and a very warm welcome back to Singapore! This is your 7th (or is it 8th?) trip to perform here, what do you think of the audience here in Singapore and are they different elsewhere?

I beginning to lose count myself of how many times I’ve played in Singapore! But I do always enjoy coming here—the energy of the society is almost palpable. And it’s certainly visible. The Gardens at the Bay, and the new developments across the water from the Esplanade seem to be straight out of the future—H.G. Wells’ Shape of things to Come has obviously arrived. In fact, I’m not sure Wells could have imagined anything quite like Marina Bay these days!

As far as audiences are concerned, there does seem to be a lively open-mindedness and curiosity in Singapore about Classical music. And Singapore is of course the ideal bridge between Western and Eastern cultures. The more moribund “old folks home” aspects of the European Classical music tradition haven’t quite reached here yet—luckily. There’s a sense of engagement, and some really splendid native talent. A couple of years ago at a masterclass I heard two Singaporean pianists in their relatively early teens play respectively one of the Liszt Paganini Studies and the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue with tremendous verve and panache. It reminded me of what Liszt once said about Chopin’s student Karl Filtsch: when younger folk like this start to tour, then the older players ought to think about shutting up shop!

Since this year your entire recital is focused on Bach, let’s talk a bit about his music. Bach is probably the most arranged/transcribed composer in the history of music, and his music (or some variations or extracts of them) has been used in commercials, movies and a lot of popular culture. Why do you think this is so?

Well, to quote Ben Johnson’s comment on Shakespeare, J.S. Bach “isn’t for an age, but for all time”. And his music also seems less tied to specific instruments or formats than most other music. Bach himself was an inveterate arranger; his own music can accordingly be adapted, or can adapt itself, to a myriad of guises—the quality always shines through. Sometimes it seems even better in an arrangement stripped of the limitations of its original incarnation. I know this sounds like sacrilege to some people, but I do find the Bach-Busoni Chaconne for piano to be more powerful than the original for violin. The potential in the music reaches its fulfilment on the piano, whereas the piece seems to be striving desperately for the unattainable on the violin. Of course, the latter is a different artistic aim. As usual, it’s a matter of taste.

(Bach’s Chaconne for Solo Violin, BWV 1004 found here)

Which is your favourite work of Bach’s and why?

To take a work as a whole, probably the B-minor Mass for its concentrated grandeur. I find the St Matthew Passion—I’m sorry—a little too long overall. On the other hand, the opening chorus, “Kommt, Ihr Töchter” is certainly one of the most stunning pieces of music ever written by anyone—utterly incomparable in its intensity—and the closing chorus one of the most moving ever written. So perhaps my favourite piece is the St Matthew Passion with a few cuts in the middle?

Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo
Benvenuto Busoni
(what a cool name!),
conductor, editor, teacher, writer

It’s fascinating how some composers can put in so much of their character and yet retain the essence of Bach’s music. I am, of course, speaking of Busoni’s, Rachmaninoff’s and Liszt’s, and also everyone else in the compilation of the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. Which is your favourite Bach transcriber or transcription?

In this respect, the “lifetime achievement” award certainly goes to Busoni, both for quantity and quality. He had an almost uncanny affinity with Bach, even if the sound world of his transcriptions might have been largely unrecognisable to old Bach himself. My favourite Busoni transcriptions are the Chaconne, and two of the Chorale Preludes: “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” and “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ”. I played the former Prelude in one of my concerts in Singapore a couple of years ago, and I’ll play the latter on Saturday, but as a prelude to Liszt’s “Weinen, klagen” Variations.

I realised a while ago that “Ich ruf zu Dir” fits like a glove with the Liszt, which is itself far more of an original work than a transcription. After the increasingly frenzied anguish in the main part of the piece has been exhausted, Liszt closes with a profoundly moving consolatory chorale, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” “Whatever God does is for the best”. He was reflecting on the death of his children, Daniel and Blandine. It finally brings the piece back into the world of the chorale prelude—or back to Bach, as it were.

Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach,
played and recorded on
Moog Synthesizers

There have been a few, umm, interesting versions of Bach around, including Jacques Loussier’s jazz trio arrangements from 1959 and Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach of 1968. Not to mention, the (not so) recent ones where electric guitars play Bachian riffs in rock songs.. Have there been any which get you irritated or annoyed?

I’m annoyed by almost anything played on an electric guitar….

Finally, to end off our short interview, could you list and describe, in 50 words each, 3 things in western culture that would not have been possible if Bach had never existed?

1. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is imbued with Bach, albeit a Wagnerian Bach, and is one of the most magnificent hymns to German culture not actually written by Bach himself.

2. Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, which I’ve always found touchingly nostalgic, maybe even because I’ve never really understood what the words were supposed to be telling me.

3. Boring first-year music students with Riemenschneider’s astonishingly dull collection of Bach Chorales, set down as if on a supermarket conveyor belt one after the other, utterly shorn of context or meaning. I’ve often wondered how many students decided after this to drop music in favour of a career manning a checkout.

I hope you enjoy the concert!

Come face to face with Kenneth Hamilton as he traces the connections Back to Bach! This recital happens on 19 April 2014 at the Esplanade Recital Studio at 1930 hrs, and is sponsored by the Steinway Gallery Singapore and the University of Cardiff.

Meanwhile, here’s the Wagner-Liszt Tannhäuser Overture played by him:

April 2, 2014

NAFA Project Strings – A Review


An edited version of this article appeared in The Straits Times on 2 April 2014 with the heading ‘Kam Ning Plays with Impeccable Clarity’.

NAFA Project Strings, Kam Ning, violin, and Foo Say Ming, director/violin
Esplanade Recital Studio/Monday

Making its debut at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Monday evening was Project Strings, the chamber ensemble of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Although it was the brainchild of its director, violinist-conductor Foo Say Ming, the entire concert was a student-led initiative which gave the students a rare opportunity to organise a full-scale concert on their own.

 Opening the concert was a world premierè of cultural-medallion winner Kam Kee Yong’s Malaysian Suite for String Orchestra, reworked in 2010 from an award-winning string quartet score composed in 1963. Kam is not only a composer and violinist, but also a renowned painter; this is evident in his compositions, which when brought to life by Project Strings, conjured up colourful scenes of life in a Malay village. The three-movement suite was laden with middle-eastern-inspired melodies, the jubilant outer movements sandwiching a serenade, which instead of a tranquil night scene, was more reminiscent of an amorous public declaration of love.

It seemed like a family business for a moment when Kam’s daughter, Kam Ning, took to the stage to perform the first Violin Concerto in D Minor by Mendelssohn, predecessor of the more famous one in E minor and rediscovered only in the last century by her mentor Yehudi Menuhin. Directing the ensemble and playing from memory, the younger Kam played with impeccable clarity and a focused sound, characterised by wit and humour. Brimming with infectious energy which also reflected in the ensemble’s playing, they offered a fresh and highly imaginative perspective to the composition which would otherwise have looked like an étude on paper. The almost-full recital studio clapped, cheered and wolf-whistled: they wanted more – and were rewarded with her signature encore piece, her own jazzy arrangement of John Newton’s Amazing Grace, complete with foot-stomping, multiple stops (playing more than two notes at once), and every other trick in the book of virtuoso violin playing.

Ending off was Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, which the concert is named after. Instead of the usual frenzied, volatile and powerfully driven readings which most ensembles offer, Foo opted for more laid-back tempos, choosing instead to bring out the timbres and layers of the different instruments and yielded a full-bodied tone from the ensemble. The textures were distinct and this worked for the first movement, but perhaps due to the sheer size of the ensemble, the later movements sounded a little wearying and at times draggy. Although evidently tired, the ensemble pressed on with gusto towards the joyful fugue finale. With such a luscious sound, one hopes that these young musicians would return soon: perhaps next time with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade?

January 22, 2014

Piano and Bassoon Recital – A Review


An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 23 January 2014 with the title ‘Bassoon and Piano in Passion Play‘.

Aw Yong Tian, bassoon; Chenna Lu, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio
Although there have been a growing number of woodwind musicians in Singapore, solo recitals are still rare, and bassoon recitals are few and far between. Understandably so too, for it is difficult to programme an evening of bassoon works and keep the audience engaged for the entire duration.  Thus, Aw Yong Tian and Chenna Lu took the opportunity to organise a combined recital featuring both the bassoon and piano.
It seemed only fitting for two graduates from the Munich University of Performing Arts and Theatre to play music in the Germanic tradition, and repertoire for the recital consisted mostly of works from the early to mid-nineteenth century. 
The first movement of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, arguably the most studied piece in bassoon repertoire, proved a delightfully playful opening. Selecting a rather fast tempo, Aw Yong effortlessly handles the passagework with clarity, maintaining the light texture and crispness of rhythm and articulation.  
Aw Yong was then joined by Zhang Jinmin, principal bassoonist of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, in J. B. Wanhal’s Concerto for Two Bassoons, more than ably accompanied by Lu. It was a pity that the two bassoons only fully warmed up to each other towards the end in the cadenza. Later, however, both bassoons jested and sang, showing off the lyrical and comical characters in three arias from Rossini’s opera, the Barber of Seville.
In between the duets, Lu took the spotlight with a dramatic rendition of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. The outer movements were powerful, but an underlying sense of impatience and agitation pervaded her playing; this was especially evident in the middle slow movement. Fearless and formidable, Lu also thundered through Mendelssohn’s Op. 28 Phantasie and Kapustin’s jazzy First Etude from the Op. 40 set.

From the tender beginning to the fast and fiery finale of Schumann’s three Fantasy Pieces, Lu seemed to play her best when she played together with Aw Yong, the duo giving an impassioned rendition.  As the applause died down, the audience was rewarded with an arrangement of Piazzolla’s Oblivion for two bassoons and piano. Although somewhat hurried, it provided a pleasant ending to a well-thought out programme.
January 13, 2014

Four Sides to a Concert – Critics take on Fou Ts’ong’s Mozart

Four Sides to a Concert – Critics take on Fou Ts’ong’s Mozart

It all started out with an email from the PianoManiac sometime last October, suggesting that “all of us write a review of the Mozart Concerto played by Fou Ts’ong, and see if we agree or differ,” after finding out that all four of us were attending the performance. We were to submit our reviews within three days of the performance, and those would get published on his blog and mine.

the 4 of us before the concert

So on the 11th of January 2014, four music critics witnessed Chinese pianist and soon-to-be-octogenarian Fou Ts’ong perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K488, and here are the views on his performance:

Chang Tou Liang is a doctor by profession, the classical music reviewer of The Straits Times, and the founder-editor of Pianomania (see link above). This is an excerpt from the full review found here.

Three landmarks or milestones were celebrated in this evening’s concert. The obvious one was the 150th birth anniversary of German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) around which a mini festival was built. Another was the coming 80th birthday of Fou Ts’ong, the first Chinese and Asian pianist to make a mark in the West, by winning 3rd Prize in the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1955. Sporting a full head of jet black hair, he did not look like an octogenarian. His gait was slower than before but maintained a dignity which always distinguished this patrician among pianists. His playing in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in A major (K.488) seemed to roll back the years. He did not project a big sound, but that was not necessary for Mozart in any case. His pearly tone and limpid runs in the faster outer movements, free of arthritic afflictions, were proof that all his faculties were gloriously intact. The Adagio slow movement brought out the most beautiful legato playing, the tragic lilting air being the work’s emotional high point, before fluently letting rip in the exciting finale. The audience yearned for an encore, but sadly there was none. However they could console themselves for having heard the finest of the three Esplanade appearances by Fou playing Mozart concertos. He seemed to find a second wind in the Indian summer of an illustrious career.

Kevin Tan is a well-known constitutional lawyer, historian, hi-fi aficionado and musicophile, former President of the Singapore Heritage Society, and former classical critic of the BigO magazine.

As the lights dimmed, out walked a man too young to be Fou Ts’ong. He proceeded to announce the impending performance by Fou Ts’ong and urge the audience to join the SSO in wishing Fou Ts’ong a Happy 80th Birthday. Did a quick check – Fou was born on the 10th of March in Shanghai – so he was two months shy of his ninth decade. From a distance, the lanky Fou Ts’ong did not look 80, but his gait and stooped shoulders gave him away. Hair slicked back and dressed in a black silk Chinese top, Fou made his way slowly to the piano, sat down and nodded his readiness to the conductor Lan Shui.

The orchestral introduction was taken slowly, the first indication that this was not to be a firecracker performance. Fou’s entry was muted and strangely lethargic and while he clearly had the measure of the music, he was not able to get all his cylinders firing. Age had clearly caught up with the old magician. The legendary touch and sound were still there, but in flashes rather than in swathes. Every so often, one heard the Fou Ts’ong of old – urbane, cultured, manicured, slightly mischievous, and just-so – but not enough of it.

The sublime second movement was little better, but far more acceptable, as Fou coaxed a wide range of sounds and shades from the piano. Alas, the patchiness of the first movement persisted and at points, the pace began to sag and teetered on the brink of somnolence. Fou appeared to be having some problem with his right hand as his otherwise pristine runs would mysteriously slosh about in muddiness from time to time. It did not help that the orchestra was often too loud and threaten to drown Fou out. But in the third movement, Fou was 40 again. It was as if the first movements were little more than warm-up sessions for this finale which he took at breath-taking pace. I almost dared not breath, for fear that he could not sustain the tempo, but Fou had clearly found his momentum and he sailed – dare I say ‘effortlessly’ – through to the end in a triumph of prestidigitation. It was the only movement where both pianist and orchestra seemed to be ad idem, and as the last notes of the orchestra died away, the audience roared lustily. Maybe Sir Thomas Beecham was right after all, so long as you start together and end together, the public will think it a good performance.

 Phan Ming Yen is a self-professed retired music critic, a lecturer at Republic Polytechnic where he is pursuing a doctoral thesis in writing (hence the poetry). In his previous lives, he was music critic for The Straits Times, Editor of The Arts Magazine, and Programme Director of The Arts House. He is the author of the book of short stories “That Night On The Beach”. His review is divided into two parts, a pReview written before the performance as a prediction, and a reView in a poem. 

The original pReview:

 “In a performance which could otherwise have been described as subdued, Fou eschewed the rhythmic idiosyncracies and dynamic excesses which sometimes marred his earlier recordings and exchanged it for subtle shifts in tonal nuances, tautly shaped phrasing and well-controlled tempi. 50 years earlier, Fou may (and occasion did) have delivered a Mozart reminiscent of the parody portrayed in the film Amadeus but now, it was Mozart viewed through the lens of emotion recollected in tranquility as it were.”

and the reView (after Xu Zhimou’s Saying Goodbye to Cambridge):

Listening to Fou Ts’ong with Mozart

Like a scholar from the past he leaves,
Just like the gentleman he is when he earlier walked on;
he smiles softly to the audience
Or perhaps to the memory of a Western sky.

Those soft hued notes that floated up from the keyboard
Are like young brides in the setting sun;
The lightness of their bodies
Keeps echoing in my heart.

The Adagio that is like a siciliana
moves leisurely as if in reverie;
I am glad for such a pastoral mood,
a gentle flow within the river of Time

That modulation within those shades of notes
Holds not clear hope, but a broken dream
Crumpled within a body of sound,
Where forgotten quavers settle.

To search for that dream? He runs with the Allegro Assai,
Upwards with scales and broken octaves,
That burst from the stardom of his youth,
a desperate clutch for the past

Yet, now he cannot play too fast,
perhaps peace is indeed his farewell music;
fortes are now silent for him,
For Mozart this evening is mezzo forte, mezzo piano

Quietly he leaves,
Just as quietly as he came;
Gently with a nod of his head,
He does not give away a single encore.

Finally, my own review of the performance, contrasted a review of Patsy Toh’s recital at NAFA on 6th of January 2014:

They say that opposites attract, and that cannot be more true in the case of husband-and-wife pianists Fou Ts’ong and Patsy Toh’s playing styles. The elderly couple was here in Singapore to perform and teach; Toh played a recital of Schubert and Chopin at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ Lee Foundation Theatre last Monday evening, while last night Fou was accompanied by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall in a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K488.

Toh walked slowly onstage, her gait slightly uneven, and with some difficulty took a bow before readying herself. Her playing was poetic and lyrical, managing to make the showpieces sound non-virtuosic. The technique was obviously beneath her, as she glided through the difficult passages in Chopin’s Barcarolle and Fourth Scherzo with ease, delicately navigating through them without drawing any attention to the virtuosic writing. Instead, she drew attention to the countermelodies, gently coaxing them out while keeping the melody and accompaniment beneath. She was a picture of elegance and eloquence as she sat playing at the piano, still, unmoving, without any dramatic antics, letting her music express itself.

If Fou Ts’ong was a legend, his glory days were definitely behind him, his playing merely a shadow of better years past. Fou picked a slow tempo for the first movement and plodded along slowly with uneven notes, playing with what can only be described as fragile beauty. The orchestra, too, also sounded uninspired, letting him down with their nonchalant attitude. Perhaps it would have been better for an octet or chamber group to accompany him instead, as the orchestra was often much too loud when contrasted with his brittle and small sound.

The second movement was even slower and almost spiritual; in Fou’s reverie-like state and use of rubato, he seemed to be conveying some kind of sadness in regret or nostalgia. Unlike his wife, his gestures were extravagant, shaking his head and lifting his arms high as he played. The finale that followed was so surprisingly fast that one wondered if he could sustain the energy and tempo until the end. He kept up till the end, even speeding up. At the end if it all, the audience cheered and clapped, possibly out of relief, or happy to have watched the living legend perform in what may be one of his final performances.

In all, it was a most interesting and amusing exercise, with majority (3 out of 4) suggesting that Fou Ts’ong performed better in the years past. Till next time!

December 15, 2013

Usher in the New Year in style! – An Advertisment

Usher in the New Year in style! – An Advertisment

It’s back yet again, arguably the classiest way to celebrate the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 – with The Philharmonic Orchestra in their New Year’s Eve Gala Concert. The repertoire this year includes some Strauss (Johann, not Richard), Sibelius’ Valse Triste, Delibes’ Flower Duet, a ‘Symphony for Fun’ by Don Gillis, and even a Peanut Vendor Song!

Ending off the concert as the clock strikes midnight is the triumphant final section of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, The Appian Way. 

So come and waltz your way into 2014 with Lim Yau, Andrew Mowatt, and The Philharmonic Orchestra!

Tickets at $38, a pair of tickets at $70. Concessions available. Get your tickets from Sistic now!

December 10, 2013

Word Voices featuring Tan Twan Eng – An Advertisment

Word Voices featuring Tan Twan Eng – An Advertisment

“Who can look back and truly say all his memories are happy ones? To have memories, happy or sorrowful, is a blessing, for it shows we have lived our lives without reservation.”

Reading The Garden of Evening Mists around this time last year while overseas filled me with a sense of longing and heimweh. Tan is a master storyteller, drawing the reader into his world with lush evocative descriptions. He blurs the lines between black and white, right and wrong, and at the end of the book, even if you feel that the characters made some wrong choices, you cannot say that anything otherwise would have been better.

His writing is sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes philosophical, and always captivating. Join him  at The Arts House tomorrow evening (11 Dec 2013) at 7.30pm as he talks about his upcoming novel among other things!

Admission is free.

December 3, 2013

3 Sides to Every Story – an Art exhibition

3 Sides to Every Story – an Art exhibition

People say that life is a journey, and people take different journeys but they ultimately lead to the same destination. As one journeys through life, and makes choices, they discover things and collect stories to tell. 3 Sides to Every Story invites you to share the visual chronicles of 3 up and coming artists’ whose life and career have taken them along different paths yet on the same journey, the journey of discovery.

Join artists Zaheera Hashim, Daphne Flynn and Mary Shin in their exhibition to see what stories they have in store! Happening from the 3rd to 7th of December at the Goodman Arts Centre. For more information, click the link above.

Admission is free.

November 27, 2013

from Classical to Romantic – a review

from Classical to Romantic – a review

With the sponsorship of LANXESS, young musicians from the Singapore National Youth Orchestra have benefitted from the wealth of experience and mentorship of world-famous musicians. Some of them have even taken masterclasses and gone on overseas study trips. As the orchestra took the audience on a musical journey from the pre-Classical to the emerging Romantic, it was also evident that they, too, were on a journey of learning and growing from strength to strength.

Opening the concert was Weber’s Overture to Oberon, where a brave horn solo (of Oberon’s magic horn) dialogued with muted strings before plunging headfirst into the fiery and fast passages. The strings tried to follow American conductor David Commanday’s clear strokes, but they got caught up in the excitement and the pace that they ended up rushing at some parts. The slower, more lyrical middle section was sung beautifully by the first clarinet, and then picked up by the strings. The exuberance and excitement returned towards the end of the piece, but this time well-controlled. This was also reflected in Brahms’ passionate First Symphony after the intermission, where there were some stellar solos especially by the woodwinds, brasses and the concert mistress on her violin.

Stamitz’s First Viola Concerto was one of the earliest works written for viola and one which bridged the gap between the Baroque and the Classical. Accompanying the soloist Max Mendel was a surprisingly large number of strings, and at times I struggled to hear his mellow viola against the orchestral accompaniment. Mendel executed the amazing runs without difficulty, working quite harmoniously with the orchestra. His cadenzas were virtuosic and utilised the entire range of the viola, coloured with double-stops, harmonics, and even intentionally tuning down the last string of his viola for the final note to the amusement of the audience!

With Max Mendel at the intermission
The audience was treated to a quintessentially-American encore, the ‘Orange Blossom Special’, a tune which Commanday described as ‘the fiddler’s national anthem’ in America. It was a partly-programmatic work which attempted to portray a special train which ran from Newark to Florida. A virtuosity of a different kind was required from the violins, having to play in bluegrass-fiddle style. This  catchy tune was complete with train-like sound effects and even a little quote from the prelude of Bach’s solo violin Partita in E! It was lapped up by the encouraging audience who clapped along, who didn’t stop clapping afterward until they played the last section again as a post-encore! 
With many opportunities for performance and learning, it looks set that the music scene in Singapore will continue to flourish in the years to come 🙂 
November 5, 2013

A burrow full of books

A burrow full of books

Thus ends my year-long sojourn in the United Kingdom, where I’ve learnt to cook, met wonderful people I never hope to lose contact with, and had the time of my life, all while reading musicology and analysing 46 different recordings of the same piece (!!!) for a dissertation. It probably comes as no surprise that I’ve amassed a large boxful of books, music scores, vinyl records and CDs in the process.

Books are amazing things, filled with facts, thoughts and opinions of the authors at the time they were written. In every city I visit, I make it a point to find second-hand bookshops to browse through, and I often leave with interesting old things, sometimes out-of-print, bought at a bargain. You never know what you’ll find in these bookshops, and most discoveries are often pleasantly surprising. I was in London last October for a Beethoven conference, and stayed with a friend who owned an apartment there. Following her advice that the best old bookshops could be found near Trafalgar Square, I poked around the area and found a few vinyls (bought one of Pollini playing late Schubert), some scores of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux by Breitkopf edited by Max Pauer (the previous owner dated the book from 1932), Chopin Preludes (Novello edition), and the first edition of the translation of Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s biography of Bach from 1920!

When in Liverpool in August, I picked up a copy of Padarewski’s biography, a book of music in the Romantic Era by Alfred Einstein, and an old leather-bound edition of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. Along the course of the year, I also acquired various piano duets, solo piano music, transcriptions, and different editions of various Liszt and Schubert works.

My favourite shop so far is AlbaMusick, tucked in a lane on 55 Otago Street in Glasgow. A black sign on the street which reads ‘Alba Musick’ and ‘Thistle Books’ points into a lane which leads into a small carpark. Upon walking into the lane, one sees a light emanating from the windows of a closed green door, which opens into the labyrinth of books. One thing that distinguishes this shop from the others is the wide selection of books on music and sheet music for virtually any instrument/combination of instruments (I bet I could find an etude book for kazoos if I tried!)

Entering the shop, it was as if one stepped back into time. Bookshelves crammed full with books fill the entire shop from floor to ceiling. In the middle there exists a table on which boxes of music scores are piled, underneath the table are even more scores, and above that are shelves of 19th and 20th century books, mostly out-of-print books, biographies, or auto-biographies. Perhaps the only thing which looked out of place was the sleek, silver MacBook Pro with its illuminated bitten-into apple resting on the tabletop. Proprietor Robert Lay sat behind the screen working from the laptop, occasionally glancing up to greet customers who walked in.

Robert is a retired cellist from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and owns two other music shops, one in Edinburgh and the other in a small Scottish book town. He has also set up and is actively involved in an early music ensemble. Robert gets his books from all over the UK, personally travelling around to source for them. Owned by an intelligent, widely-read and experienced musician for musicians, it is no wonder why this is my favourite shop of the lot.

The first time I visited his shop was sometime in August, when I was in Glasgow to watch a friend’s graduation recital. After spending a good part of the afternoon chatting with him (on Rostropovich, cello-playing, piano music, transcriptions, Beethoven and a whole lot of other things), I left his shop with a few scores, a copy of Hugo Ulrich’s transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies for one piano four hands, a Charles Rosen book, a memoir of a late 19th century accompanist Andre Benoist, and promised him that I’d be back in a few weeks’ time, asking him to keep a lookout for certain books and alert me if he saw them. Upon returning to Glasgow in early September, I was surprised to find that Robert actually put aside a pile of rare books on the table for me!  In that pile was a 2-volume Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music from 1929, a comprehensive study of anything and everything to do with chamber music until the 1920s, and a book on Elgar and the recording process of the early 20th century. Another rare find was  a first edition of Rabel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, with an inscription in the book by a lighthouse keeper to her nephew. Her nephew, presumably the owner of the book, was an accomplished pianist, and the book was filled with fingering suggestions and little scribbled notes. Somewhere in the middle, as though he thought Ravel’s writing was not difficult enough, he added harmonies and a countermelody written on manuscript paper and stuck it over the passage!

The best place to be is pretty much anywhere, as long as I’m surrounded by books and music scores! 

Time seems to fly whenever I’m there browsing, not knowing what curious things I would find.
I regret not getting more time to spend in his shop the second visit as my in-laws were patiently waiting, but I do hope to go back for a visit the next time I’m in the UK. If you do visit his shop, do say hi to him for me 🙂

November 3, 2013

Synergy in Music 2013 – A review

Synergy in Music 2013 – A review
Sheep decides to review the concert instead

1 November 2013
School Of The Arts Concert Hall

The number of audience members could not do justice to the superb performance at SOTA last evening. Perhaps it is because of all the other surrounding events overshadowing this concert – the Viva Verdi Gala concert by the SSO, the opening of the Singapore Writers’ Festival, and the ongoing Singapore Biennale that the concert hall was only about 60% filled. With three concertos and a 5-minute long overture on the programme, it was obvious that the role of the newly-formed Young Musicians’ Foundation Orchestra was to support and accompany the solo performances of three of Russia’s most prominent young musicians. Beginning with the rarely-performed Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus by Beethoven, the orchestra was energetic and concise, fully engaged in following their founder and conductor Darrell Ang.

Baeva decides to take on Ang in an arm-wrestling competition after the concerto while Sheep watches from the front row

Stradivarius violin in hand, Alena Baeva walked onstage in a red gown and gave a rendition of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as fiery as the shade of red she was in. It was a little unusual that her instrument sounded a little thin and sharp, and a little forced at times. The balance between soloist and orchestra was even for most part, but she sometimes receded into the orchestral textures. Baeva’s crisp articulation after the cadenza in the first movement contrasted refreshingly with the melody in the high winds and violins. The second movement, joined to the first by a single bassoon, was sweet and serene, and led to the daringly fast finale, where the cellos had to rush their singing countermelodic line because she seemed to be pulling them along with her. Her bow control was always impeccable though, navigating through the quick tempo with an impressive agility.

Uryupin looking relieved that he put up a good performance 

Clarinet soloist Valentin Uryupin then took the spotlight, looking stressed and a little nervous. He nodded to Ang to start the concerto, and only realised that he forgot to tune after the orchestra started! He managed to tune during the course of the 47-bar orchestral introduction and was visibly calmer afterwards. As if the solo part to the first movement of Weber’s First Concerto wasn’t difficult enough, Uryupin further embellished it with ornaments, impressing this writer and possibly all the other clarinettists in the audience. The Adagio was beautifully poetic, and showed off his softer side with phrases that seemed to start and end from nowhere. Somewhere in the middle, the orchestra was reduced to a horn trio which accompanied him in a luscious chorale. Like the third movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto before, the Rondo was a thrilling joyride, taken at a breakneck speed. The orchestra kept up ably this time though, with the razor-sharp precision that was displayed in the opening Overture.

Finally, a smile from the brooding Buzlov

The opening of the continuous single-movement Saint-Saëns was dramatic, powerful and brooding, very much like how Alexander Buzlov looked. The drama soon gave way to heartfelt  lyricism, his personality emerging as the bold voice of his cello soared above and sometimes playfully interacting with the orchestra. He played as though the bow was an extension of his arm, a part of him, effortlessly tossing off the technical hurdles, navigating through the double-stopped passages while still keeping the rich, sonorous tone. It was a pity that the orchestra was not given more solo repertoire, the musicians were sensitive, responding well to Ang’s robust strokes. Particularly noteworthy were the cellos and the first oboe, whose expressive solos in the Saint-Saëns gave an added sparkle to what was already a spectacular evening.

This concert was organised by energy group Gazprom as part of their Synergy in Music movement.

October 17, 2013

The Lady in Number Six – A Documentary


“…even thinking of music makes me happy..”

At the age of 109, Alice-Herz Sommer is the oldest living pianist and survivor of the Holocaust. For her, music has been such a big part of her life When she was 39, both she and her son were taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. Upon finding out that she could play music, she was saved – both she and her son.

In “The Lady in Number Six”, Alice tells her beautiful story accompanied by rare visuals from the World War II era.

Watch a trailer of her heart-warming story here:

July 2, 2013

Contemplating coffee, change, and culinary concoctions..

Contemplating coffee, change, and culinary concoctions..

Today I met a man whose life revolved around coffee. He had set up a little stall in Handpicked Hall, a sort-of indoor flea market located in Leeds’ Grand Arcade. Overhead, a sign read “Casa Colombiana, for pure 100% Colombian coffee”. To his left was a big complicated machine with knobs and dials and a funnel on top, and next to the funnel was a silver pipe which led straight into the wall behind it.

“That’s our coffee roaster. We roast the coffee ourselves in small batches, up to 1kg at a time, checking the quality of the beans and picking out the bad ones,” he explained. His name is David, and he had come from Colombia. He had grown up working alongside his father in a coffee plantation since the age of six, from harvesting coffee cherries to processing them till they reached the ‘green coffee’ stage. “I’ve seen my father work so hard for so little, yet all these big [coffee] companies, they make so much money out of selling coffee; some of these people have never even seen a green coffee bean! Skinny lattes, Macchiatos… People have made coffee out to be an elitist thing. It shouldn’t be. Coffee was never meant to be complicated. It’s a regular drink, to be enjoyed by regular people.” He continued, “the best way to enjoy coffee — you grind the beans, brew a cup, put on some music, and enjoy it with other people. Sometimes you have a slice of cake with it too.”

Besides being a polyglot (who counts English, Spanish and French among the languages spoken), David is also knowledgeable about politics and passionate about eradicating poverty and bringing about change in the world for the better. We spoke about big issues and little issues, from employment to parenting (“every week I get disowned at least 5 times, by my son and my wife, but we still stick together anyway,” he says in jest); and before long, half the afternoon was gone.

David, his machines, and Fanny sampling the coffee

In the time we spent chatting, a number of people had stopped by to buy coffee, most of whom were repeat-customers. His friendly nature and excellent coffee has evidently gained a popular following.  “The feedback we get has been phenomenal. People just love our coffee,” he says, with a hint of pride in his voice, and then goes on to talk about how his quiet confidence in the quality of the coffee has won over many, coffee-drinkers and non-coffee-drinkers alike. He has every reason to be proud of his craft – he roasts the green coffee beans to perfection, looks through the batch and picks out the bad beans individually, then grinds the rest of the beans to make coffee from them. He is passionate about his craft, and rightly so. The coffee is full-bodied yet not too bitter, subtle, yet rich at the same time. “I don’t give a flying fish about how much I earn. I’m reaching the twilight of my years, I’m doing what I love doing. That’s what matters, to be able to look back and say that you lived a life without regrets.”

David used to play music too. He played the saxophone, “a long time ago, long before you were born,” he remarked, telling of his last gig and how good it felt to be able to share music with others. I could relate to that too, having just played my last concert in Leeds (will write about it in another post soon!). The link between music and coffee was first established by J.S. Bach in his humorous and secular Kaffeekantate, BWV 211. The libretto tells of a father who tries to discourage his daughter from drinking coffee, and his daughter who would give up everything to have her coffee:

“Wenn ich des Tages nicht dreimal
Mein Schläfen Coffee trinken darf,
So wird ich ja zu meiner Qual
Wie ein verdortes Ziegenbrätchen.” 

Not many other composers dealt with the subject of food and music since then, and a young Singaporean musician has decided to take matters into his own hands. “Project Laksa”, the brainchild of pianist Ziliang Song, features a concert of western classical music connected with the local cuisine in Singapore. One of the highlights is a specially commissioned work by award-winning Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi. Entitled Laksa Cantata, the work finds its idea in Bach’s Coffee Cantata. Translated into Singaporean context, Laksa becomes the subject of a squabble between a couple in the build up to their wedding. For those wondering what Laksa might be, click the link above.

This concert of gastromusical delights happens at The Arts House on the 12th and the 13th of July. For more information, visit their Facebook page here, and buy your tickets here! Stay tuned for an interview with Ziliang and more food-bytes to come 🙂

May 30, 2013

Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House – An advertisement


The Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO) is made up of the finest musicians from over 20 European countries, stellar conductors and a globetrotting schedule, establishing themselves as one of the most acclaimed ensembles on the scene. It was established 15 years ago by members of the Mahler Youth Orchestra and luminary conductor Claudio Abbado with the vision of being an independent international orchestra of the highest calibre. By 2008, the French newspaper Le Monde was calling the MCO “the best orchestra in the world”. The core membership of 45 musicians live all over Europe and tour up to 200 days a year, in repertoire ranging from baroque to contemporary, and from opera to symphonies.

Under the baton of Daniel Harding, the MCO gives two performances at Sydney Opera House on 10 and 11 June. Works performed over the two days include Beethoven’s violin concerto, Schumann’s Third Symphony, ‘Rhenish’; and Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, ‘From the New World’.

Whatever they play, they play with a ‘chamber’ philosophy: intimate interplay between musicians, intensity and attentiveness. Every concert is an adventure. If you choose to purchase tickets to both programs you will receive 25% off (any reserve tickets) To book, call 02 9250 7777 or visit

May 18, 2013

Questions with Quinnuance – A Preview


The ‘Living With Young Composers’ series at The Arts House of 2011 and 2012 have gained so much success that the composers at the core of it have decided to band together (no pun intended) with a theme for this year’s concert. Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with De Silva Alicia Joyce to find out more.

Hello! You’ve got a (very cool-sounding) name for your quintet. How did this come about?

Generally, the name of our group is a combination of two words: Quintet and Nuances. Quintet to represent the five of us and Nuances to reflect our own unique sound palette and composition styles. 

This concert’s theme is “looking deep into my roots” – did you all compose works around this theme or find a theme to suit your compositions? 

When we were planning the concert, we did not intend to have a theme. However, one of our members, Ernest, shared his some of his ideas with us and one of the lines he mentioned was to a similar effect as the current theme, “Looking Deep Into My Roots.” And Bernard thought this might make sense to have a theme. Also, it would give a different perspective to our concert, after all, the past two had no theme. So to cut the long story short, we were all writing music around the theme.

Looking back at the last two concerts of 2011 and 2012, how is this one going to be different (both individually and as a collective)? 

As we are generally writing music around the theme, I believe, to some extent this concern will be more personal than the last two. How personal? Well, that’s up to the audience to find out when they come attend our concert! However, this is just my opinion and the others may not share the same thoughts as I do. But that’s the beauty isn’t it? Five unique individuals, coming together to explore one theme!
And.. What would you get? Come find out!

Catch Quinnuance and their fellow musicians at The Arts House on Thursday, the 23rd of May at 8pm!  Tickets at $18, email for enquiries. Like their Facebook page here:

May 3, 2013

A religious procession, spinning wheels, and some thoughts.


Had the twelfth piano lesson with my teacher today, and he still manages to throw me off-balance with the things he says. As we worked through Janáček’s ‘The Holy Virgin of Frydek’ from On an Overgrown Path, I asked how the middle section should be played. Although marked Un poco più mosso, virtually all recordings I’ve heard speed up so much that sounds as it is marked molto più veloce!

“Your held notes have an impatience to them,” he remarked. After looking at the score and trying it out a few times, he tapped out a tempo for me on the keyboard which was literally un poco faster compared to the beginning tempo. “No rushing, don’t lose the sense of 6 beats in a bar. It’s supposed to be a religious procession, for goodness’ sake!”

At the new tempo, it was as though the gravity of the harmonies came through. “Pay attention to the dynamics.. Then this bar here, with the wrong number of notes, play it like you’re hysterical and shouting.” Suddenly the weight of the music could be felt. Oh, wow.

Having performed Beethoven’s Tempest sonata before in performance class and received comments that it was too polite and nice, I decided to take the third movement with a more desperate and manic approach, as if someone was riding on horseback on a windy, tempestuous night, longing for home.
It didn’t work. “It should be like that, continuous, moving on and on,” he suggested, playing the opening bars of Schubert-Liszt’s Gretchen am Spinnrade and then turning it back into Beethoven.

So much to work on, so little time. How time flies; this is the last week of class in the academic year. No more MMus classes left, just an Italian oral exam and dissertation to submit in September. It’s been an incredible year of reading, learning, practicing. I came here thinking that I was not good enough to perform (my degree is, after all, in oboe performance) and expected to only do academic work. Things took a strange turn; I’ve found practicing and piano performance more enjoyable than anything else that I’m considering practice-based research for a PhD in future.

I’ve learnt to be a better cook too, and met people whom I hope never to lose.

The month of May looks exciting – an exam, the Leeds Half Marathon, a trip to London, a Wagner conference and more!

May the 4th be with you all, happy Star Wars day 🙂

ps. If you’re wondering why I’m picking up the Tempest sonata again, watch this space!

April 26, 2013

British Brilliance – A different type of virtuosity


Daniel Gordon, piano
Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall,
University of Leeds

One of the last few concerts of the Concert Series 2012/13 was a piano recital by Daniel Gordon, a piano accompanist, examiner and senior teaching staff at our university. I’ve always been amazed at his ability to play difficult accompaniments at sight, his sensitivity in following the soloist while sight-reading, and skill of page-turning all at the same time!

Titling his recital ‘Britain as a pasture and refuge?’, he paid tribute to post-second world war composers who had enriched the musical life of Britain. A large part of the concert was devoted to works by Alan Richardson, whose unpublished works were recently discovered in the Library of the Royal Academy of Music.

Barely settling down at the piano, he launched into the tumultuous Study no. 1 by Kenneth Leighton. This was somewhat reminiscent of a Chopin or Liszt étude where the melody is hidden under a mountain of running notes, but had darker overtones. Leighton’s Five Studies (Op.22) were heavy, textural works, difficult for both performer and audience. Gordon had interspersed these among the more audience-friendly compositions by Richardson, Franz Reizenstein, Hans G’al and Berthold Goldschmidt to make for a well-balanced programme. Following the Leighton was Reizenstein’s Prelude and Fugue in A. The bright, sparkly colours of the Steinway was varied with its mellowed tones of Richardson’s Pastoral Sketch by Gordon’s masterful control of the instrument.

Allowing a slight moment for applause, he then launched into Leighton’s Study no. 2, which had a tinge of Debussy’s influence. The common thread among all the works was not only the ‘Englishness’ in the harmonies, but the pushing of tonal boundaries into near atonality. Richardson’s Sonata after Paganini was a paraphrase of Paganini’s Op. 3 No. 6 for violin and guitar. If at all possible, Richardson made the piece sound like Paginini had been living in the English countryside among green pastures and gambolling lambs! Instead of the original E minor, the Andante was in the key of C# minor, giving it a graver and more melancholic disposition. It also provided for greater contrast in the sunny E major Allegro section which followed. Although virtuosity was needed for this work, it was not a case for virtuosity for its own sake. Gordon chose a slower tempo for the Andante, revelling in its lush romantic harmonies; and the starting of the Allegro too, giving it a pastoral feel before the later dazzling display of virtuosity.

Goldschmidt’s Capriccio was an eclectic mix of folk dance (think marionette puppet dance!) and love song, lyricism and spikiness coexisting together before disappearing into thin air. Another study by Leighton, then the Fugue in F minor, a little piece by Hans G’al from his 24 Fugues.

Gordon then showed off his improvisational abilities in the next piece, which he called ‘Dreaming of the Ark’, based on selected compositional themes from Joseph Horovitz’s choral piece ‘Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo’. One of the melodic fragments brought to mind the third movement of Poulenc’s concerto for 2 pianos, only greatly slowed down and made into a dreamy, floaty tune! The Rhapsodic Study by Richardson which followed was passionate and intense, played with vivid changes of mood and colour. The next study, No. 4 by Leighton differed from the rest in that it was much slower and more contemplative. Gordon turned it into a delicate, introspective performance, shading the dissonances and somehow making sense of it all.

The recital concluded with Richardson’s Memento and the Study No. 5 by Leighton.
Memento, a little nostalgic piece which encompassed the light and lyrical, was made exquisitely memorable by the skilful use of rubato. Richardson had apparently used the title “Memento” for other works as well, and it seemed to represent for him, snapshots of passing moments. The Leighton study proved a loud and impressive climax to what was overall a highly interesting concert, eliciting whoops and cheers from the audience! 🙂

April 14, 2013

Russian Resplendence – A Review


13 April 2013
Leeds Town Hall

Featuring the great Russian works of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky — and conducted by a Russian guest conductor too —  the programme itself was a sure crowd-puller. The only question was, how would an English orchestra play this programme?

Conductor Mikhail Jurowski made his way onstage with two sticks he depended very much on – a walking stick and a baton. A flick of the wrist, and the Orchestra of Opera North was off at breakneck speed; the high winds playing trills and a tri-tone motif over screeching strings and stormy percussion. Sounding stark and primitive, they conjured the ominous setting of a witches’ gathering, which built up to the frenzied dans macabre and simmered to a peaceful close in Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1886 arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain.

Continuing on from the pounding rhythms of Mussorgsky was Prokofiev’s third piano concerto, the most popular and critically acclaimed out of the five which he had written. 23-year old Jiayan Sun returned to Leeds for this performance, having won the third prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition last year with his rendition of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto. He had a dignified air about him as he took a bow and readied himself at the piano; very different from the nervous-looking and almost impatient competitor at the competition last September. The aggression had also been refined into a steely resolve, and he combined flawless technique with utmost control, shading different tone colours and bringing out melodies hidden within the copious amount of notes he had to play. The role of the orchestra in this concerto was not mere accompaniment but a participant in its own right, and at times even a ‘duelling partner’, especially in the third movement. There was a moment of slight asynchrony in the third movement, but it was dazzling all the same.

Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony is similar to Beethoven’s fifth symphony in that both begin in a minor key, deal with the subject of fate, and end triumphantly in a major key. The beauty of this symphony lies in the intimate inner movements — a heartfelt horn call that is a love song, later joined by the clarinet in a tender duet, and the waltz reminiscent of a pastorale scene — which in turn, give the outer movements their exuberance. As always, the musicians were given the space to express themselves during solos (which they did exquisitely, shaping every phrase), before ending with a truly spectacular finale.

March 21, 2013

On great works, great pianists, and a great number of things to do! – Interview with Kenneth Hamilton

On great works, great pianists, and a great number of things to do! – Interview with Kenneth Hamilton
It’s slightly over two weeks to the Romantic Masterpieces! Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with virtuoso pianist and professor Kenneth Hamilton in an exclusive email interview ahead of his recital on the 7th of April in Singapore. 
Charles Valentin Alkan
(1813 – 1888)

This year we celebrate the bicentenary of Alkan, a contemporary and close friend of Liszt and Chopin. Alkan was known to be a recluse and eccentric, yet was admired by many, including Busoni, who said his pieces were “the greatest achievement in piano music after Liszt”. Yet the music of Chopin and Liszt remain more popular than Alkan’s. Why do you think this is so?  

I think there are three main reasons.

Firstly, Alkan’s best music tends to be his most difficult and challenging—almost inordinately difficult in some cases, such as the op.39 studies. Many fine pieces are therefore completely inaccessible to amateurs, and relatively rarely played even by professionals. The amount of effort needed to learn works like the concerto or symphony for solo piano completely dwarfs that required for most “normal” concertos or sonatas.

Secondly, Alkan rarely composes big “Romantic” melodies, although he does write extremely powerful music. His original tunes tend to be quirky rather than captivating. There isn’t an Alkan equivalent of the Chopin op.9 no.2 nocturne, for example, or the Liszt 3rd Liebestraum, even if there are several charming shorter pieces.

And finally, although a supposedly a superb pianist himself, Alkan never pushed his own music very much during his lifetime, nor did he have a string of successful students—as Liszt did– who would popularize his music with succeeding generations. So, all in all, a rather unfortunate set of circumstances!

Liszt had greatly influenced musical life – inventing the piano recital, masterclasses and concert habits – with his dazzling pianistic acrobatics. What is it that draws you to Liszt, the virtuoso, the composer or the paradoxical life he led?  

Liszt,  the most Byronic, dynamic, charming
figure in music at that time. 

It’s the paradoxes that are the most fascinating elements. Liszt’s compositions might at times be histrionic or uneven, but they are virtually never dull. His music is fascinating even when it doesn’t quite work, or when you wish he really hadn’t written a certain bar or two. Wagner had it entirely right when he said that Liszt’s music was “all interesting, even when it’s not important”. And this variety was obviously part of his personality too. He was a man of unusually extreme contradictions, a mixture of serial adulterer and would-be priest, for instance. But then, contradictions are interesting, whereas uniformity is predictable—and therefore boring.

Which are his greatest works for you and which do you enjoy performing? 

The Sonata in B minor is certainly his single finest work, and I never tire of playing that piece. Overall, Liszt knew very well what his best “original” pieces were, and accordingly included them in prestige collections like the three “Years of Pilgrimage”. But in fact, the Hungarian Rhapsodies and opera fantasies are also works of genius in their own way, for Liszt was, without a doubt, the greatest “arranger” in the history of music. As Schumann wrote—when arrangement gets this good, it’s indistinguishable from original composition. And we can play our way through virtually the entire history of 19th century music in Liszt’s arrangements. That’s one of the most fascinating things for me—Liszt’s role as a “tour guide” through the century. The transcriptions are, quite simply, wonderful pieces to play.

How about Chopin’s?

Almost every piece Chopin published is a “great” work. His quality control was more exacting than any other Romantic piano composer– Liszt, Schumann, Alkan and all the rest not excluded. He didn’t spread himself anything like as widely as Liszt or Schumann—there are obviously no symphonies, nor oratorios, nor anything else for a wider stage– but he did achieve perfection within his chosen domain. I personally find works like the Ballades the most intriguing of all. In structural terms they’re utterly new, but unfold so convincingly that you hardly even notice. Mendelssohn also had this instinct for the “completely right”, but rarely had Chopin’s daring, or indeed his passion, except in one or two instances, like the glorious Hebrides Overture.

Schnabel taught that transcriptions are of value in their own right, and believed that the performer should not try to imitate the tone colours of the original instruments; but be more concerned with preserving the identity of the piece in its new dress. Do you take a more pianistic approach towards transcriptions or would you rather think that you’re in control of a huge symphonic orchestra? 

I agree that transcriptions are of value in their own right, but disagree with the second part of the statement. One needs to think orchestrally, and also of singing– that spurs the imagination to create a greater variety of tone colours, and ironically to get the most out of the piano itself. Even in music originally written for the piano, I’m always thinking “What instrument would play this passage if it were given to the orchestra? What would the scoring be? How would the melody be sung?”. That’s my attitude, for what it’s worth.

You’ve learnt from Lawrence Glover and Ronald Stevenson (therefore tracing your teaching lineage back to Liszt and Busoni!), what type of influence did they have on your playing? 

Lawrence taught me self-control—or at least tried very hard to teach me self-control!–while Ronald taught, by example, many of the nuances of late 19th and early 20th century pianism. Both were superb players in their own right—Ronald, of course, still is— and their best teaching was undertaken during their own performances. The student simply had to listen.

I especially remember Lawrence’s splendid performance of the Liszt Venezia e Napoli, with burnished Autmnal tone-colours and a virtuosity that was always kept short of the hyperbolic; and a genuinely amazing performance by Ronald of his own Passacaglia on DSCH. That really did sound like Liszt revived. You couldn’t help learning from such things.

How do you juggle being a performer and academic, having to practice, memorize music, teach classes and write? 

With difficulty. I try not to think about it too much—otherwise I’ll realize that I really can’t do it!

What do you think of the term “serious” used to describe classical music and concerts nowadays?  

Well, I suppose the term has its uses in creating certain expectations, but too often “serious” simply means “not entertaining”. Basically, there’s good music and bad music; interesting music and dull music. The genre is irrelevant. Schubert and Schumann, Cole Porter and Ivor Novello are all great song composers—it doesn’t really matter whether you’re riding with the “Erlkönig” or “gathering lilacs“. What ultimately matters is whether the composer has something to say.

Do you think concerts have the same importance today as they had before the invention of recordings and radio? 

No—they can’t possibly have. Before the middle of the 20th century—that is, before the invention of editable recording technology and the long-playing record—most music was live music. It couldn’t be anything else. The piano in the parlour was the CD player of the 19th century. Nowadays, most people listen to music through various recorded (and edited) media. We can’t turn back the clock here (King Canute couldn’t stop the waves), but we can simply embrace the consequences, among which is the fact that live concerts are now more “special” than they ever were before. As performers, we have to treat them as such, and ask ourselves what we’re giving the audience that they couldn’t get from a recording: whether that’s spontaneity, a “direct” contact with the music, artistic interaction between performer and audience or whatever. After all, rarity can in itself be a valuable commodity…

Here’s a video of Professor Kenneth Hamilton playing Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, S.178, which he performed at Cardiff University earlier this month:

Don’t miss this concert of Romantic Masterpieces, happening at the Esplanade Recital Studio at 1930hrs on the 7th of April! Tickets are priced at $32 and available from Sistic. Concessions available at $22 for students.

This concert is presented by Cardiff University.

March 15, 2013

Romantic Masterpieces – A Concert Preview


It is a rather rare occurrence when one comes across the words “performer” and “academic” used to describe a single person. Adding another description of “virtuoso” contradicts the blend even more; virtuosos are rarely academics and vice versa, because there are seemingly too few hours in a day to be able to be both. Unless one is like Professor Kenneth Hamilton.

Hailed as a ‘formidable virtuoso’  in the national newspaper by Pianomaniac (possibly Singapore’s authority on all things piano), Prof. Hamilton returns to Singapore once again, bringing with him yet another work to premiere – Alkan’s virtually impossible Concerto for Solo Piano Op. 39 – this time in celebration of the French virtuoso’s bicentenary.

He has also written numerous books, the most recent being After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (2008), a witty, informative and entertaining book which looks into pianism and the transition from the spontaneous, almost rowdy concert atmospheres in the nineteenth century to the austere, ‘funeral-like’ concert traditions of later years.

Other works presented are Chopin’s Sonata nr. 2 in B-flat minor and Liszt’s dazzling transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture.

Don’t miss this concert of Romantic Masterpieces, happening at the Esplanade Recital Studio at 1930hrs on the 7th of April! Tickets are priced at $32 and available from Sistic. Concessions available at $22 for students.

Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with Prof. Hamilton!

This concert is presented by Cardiff University.

February 27, 20130

“It [being a classical musician] is to be a member of a profession that is far greater than any individual. The masterworks of classical music are greater than any performance. Great works of art are timeless and eternal. Great music is a spiritual manifestation. Music is one of God’s greatest gifts to the human family.”

R.I.P, Van Cliburn (1934-2013).

January 13, 2013

Pomp and Pretense – Reflections on the concert


The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
11 January 2013
Howard Assembly Room,

It was advertised as a performance that had the pulsating rhythms and sultry melodies of Piazzolla; and the vivid, evocative words of Pablo Neruda, so there was no better company than three music-loving English literature majors – one who liked dance, another who didn’t, and one more who played the violin but walked around wearing a bass clef cap.

The concept was a popular one, interspersing Piazzolla’s Estaciones Porteñas (also known as The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) with poetry by Pablo Neruda and some other musical works which were supposed to chart the turning of the seasons, but not the overplayed Vivaldi-Piazzolla Four Seasons since it was popularised by violinist Gideon Kremer a decade or so ago.

Opening with the theme of Winter rather than Spring (presumably because we are in the middle of winter), the ensemble was made up of a Sharp, a violinist, an accordion-player, and a keyboardist who played on a giant instrument comprising of a legless harpsichord stacked atop a grand piano. The gentle pulsating chords to the opening of Vivaldi’s Winter gave way to some Händel, the famous aria Ombra Mai Fu from Xerxes, where Xerxes I of Persia admires the shade of a plane tree. This saw Sharp taking centre stage as a ‘bass-baritone’ and trying to use a voice resonating with so much vibrato that the poor tree (if there was one) would have cringed and withered!

An off-stage voice read Octavio Paz’s Los Novios in Spanish, the quartet played Piazzolla’s Invierno Porteño (Winter), and two dancers appeared out of nowhere and began to tango. Got to give them some credit here, this was all quite obviously improvised and not choreographed. What beautiful volcados and ganchos, and oh my goodness, what a figure the female dancer had! One thing that had irked me was the coquettish smile she had on her face. I’ve never seen anyone smile and dance tango, certainly not during a performance, and what more to Piazzolla’s music!

And Sharp was off again, reading Neruda’s ‘Poetry’ and heralding the arrival of Spring in a way too theatrical for my liking (I’ll leave the more eloquent Nathan to deal with those bits). To my right I could see my three companions cringing as much as I was! The whimsical Primavera Porteña followed, and not wanting to be upstaged by the dancers, the strings broke into a most impressive rendition of the Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a theme by Händel. Both violinist and cellist were technically brilliant, frolicking through it with a comical playfulness.

By the end of intermission we had decided that it would be best if Sharp just played his cello, but the show had to go on, and he had to sing. And read. So sing and read Neruda’s Ode to Wine he did, with much pompousness and pretense.

Verano Porteño (Summer) had some lovely accordion solos in it, and so did Piazzolla’s Oblivion, and I thought it unusual that the accordion was given so little to do. In usual tango orchestras, the bandoneon would be the prima donna of the ensemble! Speaking of Oblivion, the two dancers decided to, for a change, put in contemporary dance in the middle of (dancing) tango. Maybe they thought, “since we’re making up all of the tango on the spot, we better rehearse something to make it look like we actually worked, so let’s put in some modern dance here.” Bad idea. It could’ve worked better with another piece, but not when the music was practically calling for them to tango.

Sharp wasn’t so bad a singer, he pulled off Rodgers & Hart’s My Funny Valentine rather convincingly; supported by the sensitive playing of the ensemble who passed the melody seamlessly back and forth from accordion, to violin… then to cello where Sharp had returned to his seat and continued playing.

In all, it was not a terrible performance, but it didn’t work out all that well either – there was a sense of cellist Matthew Sharp being overambitious and trying to do too much – play cello, read poetry, and sing; I’d bet if he could dance tango and juggle flaming chainsaws he would, too.

January 3, 20130

“Do you know that Beethoven firmly believed that people who listened well to his music would be better people, happier people? It’s the attitude that art has moral value. Yes, I think music has a special capacity to bring harmony to all nations. Good music has a truly positive effect on people… Instead of developing nuclear weapons, when are we going to decide to live, and love, and play music, and listen to it, and survive?” 

– Paul Badura-Skoda, in an interview by David Dubal, in Reflections from the Keyboard. 

December 25, 2012

So this is Christmas..


…spent away from my family, for the first time. A rather quiet Christmas, free from the present-shopping and wrapping; church rehearsals; and familial duties.

I’d been dreading it since I heard the first christmas songs at the Kirkgate Market in October. As Bing Crosby’s voice crooned “I’ll be home for Christmas…”, I realized that I would not be home for Christmas.

To top it off, University is closed from the 22nd of Dec until the 2nd of January, which means no practicing or working at the library! Not to say that I didn’t have a good time – wonderful friends here made sure I had somewhere to go and spend Christmas with, but it just wasn’t the same. I (rather strangely) wondered what the Orchard Road light-up would look like, missed the GMC christmas drama, and even playing for Christmas morning service.

Anyway, this was shown at church today, and I thought it summed up the Christmas story perfectly – and in a simple, silly way too!

I remember talking with a friend once, and we both thought if one were to sing the Bohemian Rhapsody, one would not just sing the words, but the harmony, AND the electric guitar solos as well! Otherwise it just wouldn’t be complete.

Ending off with the most humorous wish from a friend who wished me 3 Hs – Health, Happiness and Horowitz-like technique, I’d like to wish everyone reading this the same three wishes, except for the last, which should be substituted as Heifetz if you’re a violinist, or Holliger if you’re an oboist (:

Blessed Christmas to all!

December 15, 2012

The Philharmonic Orchestra – New Year’s Eve Gala Concert 2013

The Philharmonic Orchestra – New Year’s Eve Gala Concert 2013

Following the resounding success of last year’s New Year’s Eve gala concert, The Philharmonic Orchestra are at it again, holding yet another gala concert to usher in 2013.

Part of the fun, I highly suspect, is trying to time the programme so well such that the loudest, noisiest bit of the ending coincides exactly with the countdown right up to the new year! It is always at the very last 2 minutes or so that tensions run high, atmosphere is electrifying, the conductor and musicians are visibly stressed (with the conductor probably frantically glancing discreetly at his watch, looking at the score and conducting at the same time), and the audience get excited and restless, wondering if the orchestra will make it to the end by the time the clock strikes midnight!

That, alone, is worth coming for. Did I mention that the audience get a glass of bubbly during interval as well? (:

So come, and be swept off your feet by a march, dances and waltzes by Strauss, Verdi, Borodin, Sibelius and Saint-Saëns, and end it all off with Respighi’s ever-popular The Appian Way from The Pines of Rome! 
Get your tickets here now! Concessions available.
December 14, 2012

“What do bar lines sound like…?”


.. asked the piano teacher in our lesson this morning. Lessons with him are always funny, challenging, and ridiculous; and he always finds a way to throw me off-balance.

Our lesson this morning had been no different. After making it to uni at 8.30am in the dark, foggy weather (climbing up a hill that is ice-y and slippery is really quite unpleasant),we worked through Piazzolla’s Angel suite of tangos, and realized that it didn’t fit nicely into the programme I was planning. “Let’s try the Brahms”, he suggested, and I played through the Op. 118 no. 2 Intermezzo which I had been practicing.

“You have too many ideas all over the place,” he said  plainly when I finished playing. Motioning me to move aside, he sat at the piano. “You’re making the piece sound more complicated, when it is all very simple.”

“But isn’t Brahms supposed to be complex?”

“Make it sound simple, and follow the phrase markings,” he replied, demonstrating the first page. When he got to the fourth line or so, he pointed at a bar line and asked, “what are these?”

“Er… Bar lines?” I answered nervously, unsure of where the conversation was going.

“And.. what are they for?”

“To mark out the beats in a bar…?”

“Because if we didn’t have them, music would be a complete mess to read. Now tell me, can they be heard?”

“Uhhhhh… no.”

“Well, yours are audible.”

He then went on to show me how it was supposed to be played, following the phrasing, pencilling in new bar lines into my sheet music and completely disregarding the printed bar lines. “It should have a sort of lilt”, he added.

At the F# minor section, which I took at a faster tempo and a little more actively, he disagreed. Saying it should be like a daydream, he then scrawled DAYDREAM onto my music. “What about the chorale-section then?” I asked. “That’s the dream,” was his reply.

At the end of the lesson, he asked if I had enough music to play. Before I could answer, he said to learn Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke D. 946, along with Webern’s Op. 27 Variations. Interesting programming idea though – contrasting the two Viennese schools.

Here’s Pollini playing both works:

Webern?!?! “It’s just math,” said a friend trying to reassure me.

But I’m terrible at math! Next lesson in a month’s time. ohmygoodnessme.

Seriously, serialism? Bah.

I’m hungry. Shall look for cereal for lunch. (:

December 10, 2012

the passing of a great pianist-scholar..


One of the few musician-scholars and known for his intellectual interpretations of works by Bach (he recorded the Goldberg Variations and The Art of Fugue), Beethoven, Chopin, Elliot Carter and Schoenberg (!!! what a combination, just goes to show his versatility), Charles Rosen passed on yesterday, succumbing to cancer.

“It was said of Mr. Rosen that when he practiced the piano, a discipline to which he hewed daily well into old age, he might choose to read something — not a musical score but an actual work of literature — at the same time.”

Read about it here.

 Rest in peace, Dr Rosen.

December 9, 2012

Sibelius Sunday – A review


And so Sibelius Day started with the concert at the Leeds College of Music. A friend came from Manchester to watch his flatmate play the Violin Concerto, and I went along too, mainly because of my love for the work, and also the curiosity to hear how the LCM orchestra sounded like. In conductor John Anderson’s brief introduction to the concert, he mentioned that the accompaniment to the concerto was extremely difficult and that they would do their best to play it. Usually when the conductor says something like that, my immediate thought would be ‘Oh dear me, how bad is this going to be?’

The Overture to Prince Igor by Borodin was at best, loud. At its worse, it was disorganized, entirely out-of-tune, and an absolute bore to listen to. Anderson was trying his best, and admittedly so were the musicians, but they could not get their act together.

Instead of the desolate chill that one was supposed to feel from the opening violin tremolo of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, I felt my hair stand on end – the tremolo of a minor third was reduced to a series of quarter-tone squeaks, shrill and scratchy. Soloist Bing Xiang never let that get to him, as he launched into the rich, full, opening tones of the concerto . Immediately the sense of “chilly warmth” was felt. His intonation was faultless, his playing refined, and coupled with strong technique and musicality.

If there was something consistent throughout, it was the terrible intonation of the orchestra. More than once, the orchestra got obviously lost, and there were moments of awkward decrescendos, the music held up by the few stronger musicians while the rest grappled and struggled to find their way around. The string players were hiding behind each other, and lost half the time. The flutes seemed to be the best section, being remotely in control.

The delicateness of the second movement was made somewhat draggy by a floppy-haired first clarinettist. He kept slowing down every single time he had a solo to play, perhaps because his view of the conductor was obscured by his fringe which covered his eyes!

Bing was starting to get a little tired towards the end of the last movement, and there just wasn’t enough energy to keep the rhythmic drive in the third movement, for it seemed as though both he and Anderson were trying haul the entire orchestra out of a pit of quicksand! He was assisted by the brass section towards the end, who did what they were best at doing – blasting.

In all, the concert was a let-down, the brilliance of the soloist marred by the sheer incompetence of the orchestra.

That very evening however, listening to the perfect intonation from the trombones’ ominous opening growls, the expressive beauty of the woodwinds, and the lush sonority of the strings, Finlandia was a glorious opening to the concert at the town hall. I felt a welcome sense of relief that this concert would definitely turn out better than the last – and thankfully, it did.

The Violin Concerto by Philip Glass which followed seemed to be a tad lacklustre in nature. The small sound of soloist Jack Lieback’s violin was swallowed up from time to time by the orchestra, who was playing its part with so much enthusiasm that it seemed to have forgotten that it was supposed to support and accompany! Even sitting in the fifth row from the front, I struggled to hear the violin in the outer movements. The intensity and intimacy in the second movement shone through, especially in the higher registers of the violin, which pierced through the syncopated accompaniment of the orchestra.

Háry János Suite was based on a comedic Hungarian character who spun tales about adventures he had when he was younger. Kodály explained that those stories are “an inextricable mixture of realism and naïveté, of comic humor and pathos…”, and intended his music to be taken as seriously as the old man’s claims, of which are “irrelevant” and “the fruit of a lively imagination”.

As the old Hungarian belief that a story told after a sneeze is almost always true, the suite opened with the loudest, most comical sneeze, complete with an impressive glissando down the piano! From the sad melodic themes to the percussionists’ imitation of Viennese intricate clockwork, the satire in the brass fanfares to the atmospheric slow Song with the viola and the cimbalom (a Hungarian string instrument played with mallets), conductor Richard Farnes was almost like a magician, waving a magic wand to conjure up fairytales.

The build-ups in Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, from the very first one awakening in the first movement, radiated forth powerfully like a burst of light at daybreak. The rest of the symphony to follow, right up to the majestic emergence of the horns in the ‘Swan Hymn’, brought a joyous, magnificent end to the concert.

Maybe, if Bing Xiang had played Sibelius’ Violin Concerto at the town hall with the Orchestra of Opera North, in between Finlandia and the Fifth Symphony, that would have made the perfect Sibelius concert (;

November 26, 2012

Sibelius Sunday..


…it shall be called, 2nd December 2012 because of the amount of works by Sibelius performed in two different locations in Leeds.

A friend from Manchester told me that his friend will be performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto at the Leeds College of Music, with the Leeds College of Music Symphony Orchestra in an afternoon concert. Also on the programme is Borodin’s Prince Igor and Smetana’s Triumph Symphony in E major.

On the same evening, at the Leeds Town Hall, the Orchestra of Opera North plays Finlandia and the Fifth Symphony, along with Kodály’s Háry János Suite and Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto.

Glass and Sibelius – what a perfect combination! It is probably one of the best birthday presents this year, assuming they play it well of course (= But, watching it live will be an experience in itself.

I remember once telling a friend that I would imagine the Glass Violin Concerto score to look like an étude. His reply was “Doesn’t anything Glass writes for a solo instrument look like an étude?”

And ohhhh, Sibelius. From the dancing polar bears (Donald Francis Tovey described the third movement as “a polonaise for polar bears” in his book, Essays in Musical Analysis) to the exquisite, angelic chorale in Finlandia..  There’s something incredible about his music, something almost spiritual, that evokes heimweh, or einsamkeit; something that makes one want to dance, to sing, or just to stand still in awe of the beauty of God’s creation..

Conductor Simon Rattle expresses it perfectly:

 “Sibelius is so concentrated and exact. With Sibelius you feel that if one drop touches your skin it would burn right through the bone.”

As if a taster of what’s to come on sunday, there’s an open rehearsal at Opera North the whole afternoon tomorrow.

I can’t wait. (: 

November 25, 2012



I did not panic because, well, first of all, my feeling for the piece was so strong – I love the piece so much, that there was not even a moment when I had time/space in my brain to think that I was scared.” 

– Midori, on breaking strings twice (!!!) within a minute during a performance during a performance of Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium when she was 14.

Watch the clip here:

November 15, 2012

Opposing interpretations..


So I decided to pick up the second English Suite in a minor by Bach again after putting it down for a little while. My teacher here heard it by me for the first time today in lesson, and oh my goodness it was a complete opposite interpretation of Miss Lim’s!
He saw the prelude as a straight, almost technical movement, and commented that my playing was ‘too feminine and nice’. Shutting the lid of the piano, he asked me to knock on it as if knocking at a door. “Now try playing it that way on the piano”, he said, after I had achieved the knocking texture that he wanted. The result was completely different. Forkel describes Bach’s playing,

“Bach is said to have played with so easy and so small a motion of the fingers that it was hardly perceptible. Only the first joints of the fingers were in motion; the hand retiained, even in the most difficult passages, its rounded form; the fingers rose very little from the keys, hardly more than in a trill, and when one was employed the others remained quietly in position.”

and I felt that way, fingers bent, directly over the keys and arms not moving, as I tried to play it the way my teacher asked!

At places where a few bars were repeated over and over but in higher octaves, I usually started softer and built it up. He however, suggested that because the lowest notes on the harpsichord were the loudest, a terraced decresendo should be done. The passage that followed, he described it as something like “thumb-twiddling music”or as if one got lost and was going round and round, where Bach used a sequence for a few bars before finally settling on a dominant pedal.

The next section saw the use of some ‘exquisite’ harmonies which I tried to bring out, but he put it down as “It’s not Elton John, the major chords were just matter-of-fact in Bach’s time”!

After what happened during the first movement, he asked me to carry on and play the second. I tried as best as I could to not use as much nuance as I usually do, resulting in a (in my opinion) rather straight interpretation of it. I think he sensed it, and after remarking that everything should be played exactly the way I just played, said, “Are you afraid to do anything ‘nice’ to the piece in case I say anything nasty?”

“Very much so,” was my reply, to which he quipped, “Now, THAT’S good teaching, that!” and laughed.

More work on the next 3 movements for the next lesson. Brilliant, not.

November 13, 2012

Of drama, the night, and a fish.. – a review

Of drama, the night, and a fish.. – a review

As part of the festivities surrounding the Leeds International Piano Competition held earlier this year, the Hallé Soloists performed a small chamber concert at the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall this evening, jointly organized by the university and Friends of the Leeds International Piano Competition.

On the programme tonight was the ever-popular ‘Trout’ quintet D667 by Schubert, but not before his tender Nottorno in E-flat Op. 148, D897 and Mendelssohn’s first piano trio in D minor, Op. 49.

The mastery of Schubert is seen in how he writes the three parts to perfectly balance each other in importance; and balance was key as they took turns to shine or support. The piano part shimmered and sparkled like in most of Schubert’s writing, and pianist Sam Armstrong was always careful to keep it light yet lyrical.

As though using the Notturno as a warm-up, the trio launched into the dramatic and passionate D-minor trio. Pianist Armstrong continued to impress, making the devilishly virtuosic piano part look easy as the trio pressed onward through the powerful finale.

I have always loved the Trout quintet, having listened to it while growing up, but particularly memorable was the first time I watched it – in the 1969 Christopher Nupen film of the performance by Perlman, Zukerman, Mehta, Du Pré, and Barenboim, in a history lecture 8 years ago. With this being the first live performance of the Trout quintet I’m attending, I was excited to see what it would bring.

Although the quintet was polished to a high degree of refinement and all the musical expressions were in place, it felt almost sterile, this note-perfect playing. There was still much sensitivity and their rendition was certainly very lovely, but what came across (to me, at least) was a bunch of professionals who came together to put up a concert for work’s sake, not an intimate group of friends, like how Schubert intended his Schubertiards to be.

Maybe, just maybe, I’m expecting too much out of a £5 concert (:

Shall end with the above-mentioned 1969 video…

Or just the variations. Enjoy! 

October 26, 2012

Beethoven Week.


I’m in the middle of a week almost full of Beethoven, and am enjoying it tremendously (: Two days ago  Barry Cooper gave a talk in Manchester, which a friend, knowing my love for Beethoven’s music, very kindly invited me to attend. Dr Cooper showed us examples from Beethoven’s sketchbooks that later became great works, and spoke on “the transformation of base metal into gold” in Beethoven’s works as he called it. Speaking to him briefly after his talk, I think he was amused to hear that I was from Leeds, and that I would be travelling to London this weekend (in two hours, actually) for the Beethoven conference at Southbank Centre to hear him speak on the piano sonatas, among other topics.

Sandwiched in between the two events was performance class yesterday. I have been learning the Waldstein sonata for a couple of months now, and my teacher had suggested that I play it for performance class. And what a class it was, because Professor Clive Brown, 19th-century historical performing practice specialist was present and co-conducting the class with Daniel Gordon, performance tutor, accompanist, and a fantastic pianist. Needless to say, I played terribly (having sore, aching arms from rock-climbing two days before). Immediately this sparked a rather heated discussion of choice of tempo, articulation of notes and note lengths (- to play crotchets and quavers as they are written, or to just play them short anyway because Beethoven was fairly inconsistent?),  arpeggiation of lyrical chordal passages and playing equal semiquavers unequally to bring out certain harmonies as they would have done in the 19th century etc.. Prof. Brown labelled my playing as too even, too rigid and acceptable in today’s context, but was this how Beethoven would have played it?  Then again, on a modern Yamaha grand piano in such an echoey concert hall, would all this have worked?

The other two performers for the day weren’t spared academic debate either – one sang Berg’s Nacht, which started another debate on whether to sing with the more consonant North-German hoch deutsch or take the softer Austrian approach to pronunciation and enunciation of the text.. When a composer composed, did he take into account his own language slang for the performance?

The other played Bach’s prelude and fugue in a minor, and again more talk ensued, on the choice of articulation, tempo, instrumentation of that time – which instrument did Bach intend it for, the organ, clavichord or harpsichord?

What an interesting end to the week. Off to London for the conference, the British Library and meet-ups with friends! Excited much (:

October 21, 2012

“I like Haydn, he’s like a Santa Claus of music..”


… said my date for the evening, after conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy introduced Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 “Oxford” and mentioned that Haydn had felt at the end of his life that it was his obligation to lift people’s spirits with the gift of music that God had bestowed upon him. The Manchester Camerata ended off the concert playing Haydn as meticulously as Haydn had written the music, with the sweet opening breaking off into the joyous Allegro. The Minuet was particularly memorable, for Takács-Nagy was almost dancing on the podium, and it looked as though the whole orchestra was dancing along with him, especially the strings, who were standing.

Peppered with English folk songs and tunes, St Paul’s Suite provided a charming and melodious start to the evening’s programme. The rollicking Jig was fast but unhurried, switching meters effortlessly from 6/8 to the extended 9/8 bars and back to 6/8 without so much as batting an eyelid. The Ostinato and Intermezzo were also passionate and energetic, bordering on frenzied, yet not compromising on the clarity of notes and phrases. The Dargason, the finale and a 16th century English folk dance tune, was an 8-bar melody that went round in circles. Holst had cleverly woven Greensleeves inside this dance tune, evoking the feeling of freedom, of flying (on a broomstick or dragon as in Harry Potter) over sprawling green fields dotted with sheep..

The D Minor Piano Concerto K466 by Mozart which followed was just as thrilling. The pre-concert talk by Dr Clive McClelland covered the use of Ombra (Italian for “shadow” but used here in the context of “scary music”) in music before and during Mozart’s time. The key of D minor in the music of Mozart was highlighted, as with particular areas in the music that were “scary”. “Scary” took on a different definition, when Swiss-Italian pianist Francesco Piemontesi tackled the third movement at such a breakneck speed that most of the audience were scared and slightly nervous that he would trip and fall. His control was exceptional, as with the fine accompaniment from the orchestra. His cadenzas were rather Beethovenian, making use of trills and scales covering the entire range of the piano. Piemontesi took three curtain calls, and emerged again to give a dazzling display of Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), the last from Debussy’s second book of preludes.

The highlight of the evening, however, was the little piece that preceded the Haydn symphony – Sospiri by Elgar. His use of the seventh and the characteristically “English” harmonies, coupled with the shimmering of the strings expresses the deepest pleading and yearning. Played by a such a great orchestra, this was a truly affecting and heart-achingly beautiful piece of music.

As C walked me back we passed by many drunkards and a few clubs blasting loud music. The altered state from the sublime music at the concert hall was instantly shattered. I suppose it is all quite revoltingly fascinating in a weird way. Hello, reality ):

(As I type this, there’s an amateur choir of people in drunken stupor half-singing and half-shouting God Save the Queen outside my window.. I’m rather amused and mildly irritated)

October 9, 2012

“…but Poulenc died almost 50 years ago!”


.. was what my new piano teacher said, when I told him that the most modern piano music that I’ve played was Poulenc’s. Oops..

I finally had my first piano lesson yesterday, after playing “unsupervised” twice at Performance Class. The feeling of performing on the piano (and not having to look into the audience when I play) is wonderful, exhilarating. And yet it is terrifying, for being in a postgraduate class the standards are rather high and there exists this pressure to play well. Recordings are also made and put on the internet, thereby adding to the stress, but I’ve come to learn that the recording usually sounds different to what I (think I) am hearing  during my own performance!

That aside, I attended a lunchtime concert on Friday to watch my new piano teacher accompany a violinist. The duo played a Mozart sonata and a notoriously difficult Schubert Fantasy. His sensitivity was amazing, controlling the tone of the piano so that it matched the soloist’s, and effortlessly gliding over all the running notes and tremolo passages in the Schubert.

He had called me earlier to ask me to learn Debussy’s Voiles, giving me about a week to learn it before my lesson. During lesson, he asked if I could play something, and having practiced the first movement of  Beethoven’s Waldstein for about two months, I played it from memory. I must have looked ridiculous, using all my might to get a big sound out of the piano, after which he said, “You’re playing Beethoven too nicely. It should be big. And grand, and..”

“Symphonic?” I volunteered.

“Yes, that’s the right word!”, proceeding to demonstrate the passage ever so effortlessly and yielding a sound that tripled mine from the piano ):

While working on Voiles, he mentioned that he agreed with everything I was doing except the pedalling. With pedalling being so important in impressionist music, that was, methinks, basically saying that everything had gone haywire. Using a pencil to draw a little sailboat, he said, “this is how one draws a sailboat.” Then using his finger to smudge the drawing, he then said “This, is how Debussy saw it. You have to be very liberal, yet careful, in using the pedal for music like that”. Wise words indeed.

Upon finding out that the most modern music I played was Poulenc and that I didn’t take very kindly to new music, he remarked “I’m going to get you some new music the next lesson, and we’re going to make sure that you like it first. For next week, learn up Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca No. 123.” Eeeep.

T’was a fun lesson, nonetheless (:  

September 15, 2012

Thoughts on the Leeds Piano Competition Finals – Day 1

Thoughts on the Leeds Piano Competition Finals – Day 1

If there’s anything I learnt from all this, it is never to make an overnight (16-hour) journey, arrive in the city early in the morning, and watch a concert on the same evening. Making things much worse was the number of things I had to get done during the day – lug a huge suitcase to my accommodation, open a bank account, pay school fees, register at a medical practice, shop for the bare necessities, and finally find the Leeds Town Hall.

the Leeds Town Hall, where the Finals were held

Tickets were sold out for the second night, so I only managed to watch the first, and here are my extremely exhausted and jet-lagged thoughts of the evening.

 Outside the hall was the BBC trailer
and the Hallé Orchestra trailer

Opening the concert was 24-year-old Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel’s rendition of Beethoven’s Concerto no. 4. From the opening bars it was evident that he was an extremely introverted and sensitive musician, and the Hallé orchestra responded just as thoughtfully, directed by Sir Mark Elder. All through the concerto the blend between soloist and orchestra was delightful and perfectly balanced. The second movement was fragile and delicately handled, and the third, a show of agility without being too flamboyant.

A change of mood ensued, with Chinese pianist Jiayan Sun’s account of Prokofiev’s second concerto. The youngest of the (all male) finalists, he launched into the concerto as if impatiently, later on getting almost aggressive, bringing out the jerky, mechanical textures that are typical of Prokofiev. In a performance that bordered on insanity, Sun drew out the resonance and the brilliance of the piano, aided punctuations from the timpani and brass.

The Emperor Concerto, played by Australian Jayson Gillham, was a tad too pedantic and lacked the warmth and majesty usually associated with this work. The orchestra sounded a little out-of-sync at parts, as if unable to agree on a tempo. Even the second movement lacked the lyricism and sounded calculated.

I don’t know if it was tiredness setting in or lack of sleep impairing my judgement, but this was nevertheless an exciting start to my year-long stay in Leeds (:

August 28, 2012



“Another time, on the same route, during the crossing of the same ocean, night had begun as before and in the lounge on the main deck there was a sudden burst of music, a Chopin waltz which she knew secretly, personally, because for months she had tried to learn it, though she never managed to play it properly, never, and that was why her mother agreed to let her give up the piano. 

Among all the other nights upon nights, the girl had spent that one on the boat, of that she was sure, and she’d been there when it happened, the burst of Chopin under a sky lit up with brilliancies. There wasn’t a breath of wind and the music spread all over the dark boat, like a heavenly injunction whose import was unknown, like an order from God whose meaning was inscrutable. 

And the girl started up as if to go and kill herself in turn, throw herself in her turn into the sea, and afterwards she wept because she thought of the man from Cholon and suddenly she wasn’t sure she hadn’t loved him with a love she hadn’t seen because it had lost itself in the affair like water in sand and she rediscovered it only now, through this moment of music flung across the sea.” 

– The Lover, by M. Duras

August 22, 2012

in memoriam…

in memoriam…
Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordasi del tempo felice
Nella miseria 
-Inferno, Canto V, 121-3 from Dante’s La Divina Commedia
Patches, 2006 – 2012

There is no greater misery than to remember happy times in sad. 

Patch patch, why did you have to go? ): 
July 20, 2012

How to change the world..


 for R…

Arts & Education Forum
Keynote 3: Arts + Values = Global transformation
By Kang So-Young, CEO and founder of Awaken Group

A friend of mine was supposed to attend the Arts and Education Forum at SOTA on the 5th and 6th of July, but because she had another work commitment, she sent me in her place for the second day. And what a day of strange coincidences it was, amidst the inspiring and thought-provoking sessions.

The keynote in the morning was given by Ms Kang So-Young, founder and CEO of Awaken Group, a global leadership development and Experience Design firm. She started the keynote by playing a short section of aria from Puccini’s La Boheme, and sharing how that aria evoked nostalgia and precious memories for her because she grew up listening to her mother sing it, and when she was old enough, even accompanied her mother on the piano. “Music and the arts have a magical power to evoke emotions”, explaining further the role of music in the arts to connect people.

Being a musician (a pianist) herself, she first talked about the mechanics of playing – technical aptitude, theory, and rote memorisation, demonstrating that by playing scales on the keyboard that was on stage. She linked this to Sir Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule that one had to practice something for at least 10,000 hours before becoming good at it. The same applies to music, or at least the technical skills aspect. She surpassed the 10,000 hour mark sometime in college, “but music is not like a computer. It’s an art, which requires interpretation, expression, meaning, and a point of view.” She continues, “until I knew myself, who I was, and what my beliefs were, I couldn’t empathise with other people.” 

Demonstrating on the keyboard, she recounted a time in college where her teacher made her spend a whole hour on the opening bars to Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata. The notes were clearly within her technical ability, but she was playing merely notes. Thus, the challenge was to play music, not just notes. Are we in danger of practicing technical competence but not music? How then, does one interpret music? Ms Kang’s answer to that was a simple yet profound statement – our art should be an outward expression of what’s on the inside.

She gave an analogy by using the diagram of a tree. The roots represent purpose, perfection, progress, fears, autonomy, greed, and all things on the inside. These then grow into expression, emotions, technical competence and decisions, as represented by the leaves and branches. Holding the tree and supporting it is the trunk, which signifies values. Values are a result of what’s on the inside, and they influence how one grows, just like a tree, from the roots to the branches. She gave an example of her own values in the way she works – to consciously choose (building, nurturing) relationships with people over perfection, technical competence, achievements and even excellence. However, this does not mean that she is not striving for excellence, but when a situation arises, she would rather compromise on perfection than the quality of relating to others she works with.

Showing some examples, Ms Kang then spoke on how modern art and music is getting more vulgar, as though it is the trend to express more negative emotions through one’s art or music/lyrics. Whose role is it to develop values on the inside?

Contrary to the negative art, there exists some artists whose works reflect all things positive. Highlighting the works of sculptors Antony Gromley (Angel of the North) and J. Shim (Pillar of Clouds), she mentioned that these artists use art as a reflection of their values and beliefs in harmony of nature to God. In music, Robert Gupta, 24-year-old and the youngest musician of the LA Philharmonic, set out with his project “Street Symphony”, where he plays the violin out on the streets or in prisons to reach out to the deeply ostracised, because he believes that music is medicine, and music is sanity (This author later found out that Gupta holds a pre-med biology degree).

So, what does this mean for music educators? Ms Kang then shared the three questions she frequently asks her co-workers as a guide in how to evaluate their progress – What?, So what?, and How?. The mission statement for her company was “Designing transformative experiences from the inside out to bring joy and beauty to the world”. This statement encompasses all three questions in the following way: Designing transformative experiences (what) from the inside out (how) to bring joy and beauty to the world (so what).

What? – There is a need to combine head (ideas, technical skills and theoretical knowledge), heart (values, emotions and meaning) with hands (performance, practicing, finding avenues to act eg. Community work)..

So what? – to evoke emotions like joy and excitement, which can be transformative, bring healing, and reconcile across borders..

How? – through learning experiences. She mentioned that learning has changed over the years, from lecture-based lessons to interactive/experiential, to action (practicing what you preach), to self directed (Kahn Academy, open university, YouTube) learning, then to augmented reality, just like how the teacher functions from teacher to facilitator, then coach/mentor.

In conclusion, she summarises that the arts is a powerful tool for transformation. It has the power to transcend cultural, religious and political differences, thereby creating a common language. “The world needs more beauty and joy. We are living in times of increased outward discord and dysfunction, and we (as artists/ art educators) play a significant role in shaping and guiding the head, heart, and hands of the future generations”.

July 11, 2012

Four dollars and ninety cents.

Four dollars and ninety cents.

Call it a sequel to this, if you may..

HMV CD sales are highly dangerous –  I end up buying more CDs than I need, and some of them remain in their wrapper, unopened for a long, long time until I discover them in the recesses of my collection a few years later.

I’ve been listening to more minimalist music of late, having received a CD of music by Michael Nyman and Yann Tiersen, and bought a Philip Glass compilation of scores. Back in 2007, when I was first introduced to minimalist music by Dr Eleanor Tan, I thought it to be repetitive and boring. What’s the whole point of it all?

Recently, I’ve been able to listen for, and appreciate the nuances and the changes in the music. Listening to minimalist piano music while running is quite an interesting experience. Somehow the monotony of the music matches the pounding on the pavement and everything falls in sync.

I was at the HMV sale the other day, and stumbled upon this CD which cost $4.90.

I’m not sure if I’d pay for it if it was sold at the original price, but for four dollars and ninety cents, it provided much entertainment, even though the piano was just clomping away most of the time.. (: 
June 26, 2012

A thank-you note…


You knew how I have been practicing for the LTCL in a few hours’ time, and halfway across the world, in the midst of a busy trip, you called with your wishes just because you understood, and knew how much the music meant to me.

I’m really, truly, grateful.

Press play, please (:

June 15, 2012

5 Questions with Lim Yan (Part II)


The mid-week concert featuring Lim Yan playing Beethoven’s third and fourth concertos accompanied by The Philharmonic Orchestra was quite incredible. Showing no signs of tiring, Yan tackled the two concertos with nimbleness and grace, bringing his own imagination into a performance that radiated with warmth and heartfelt tenderness, especially in the central movements. The orchestra responded suitably, with the depth of tone and lyricism. Particularly poignant were the solos by principal oboist Veda Lin, who handled the passages with delicacy and finesse.

The upcoming concert is certainly an exciting one – featuring a trio of soloists rather than Yan himself, perhaps taking listeners back to the days of the concerto grosso? Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with Yan again, as he prepares for this exuberant finale.

Now that you’ve performed both the third and fourth concertos on the same night, how did it feel, having to keep up with the emotional turmoil in the third and the physical demands of the fourth on the same evening, with only a 20-minute break?
It felt fine! The experience of the first concert probably helped, as I was able to pace myself better through both concertos. Also, I feel lighter with every concerto that passes – like a weight being lifted off me!
The opening of the concerto only took you about 15 seconds to play, and yet it is deemed as one of the most difficult beginnings for a piano concerto. I thought yours sounded rather wistful, how did you envision yourself playing it, and how do feel about it?
Well I think one can get overly worked up about the opening to the Fourth concerto. Obviously technically it is not a big challenge; the important thing is to have a clear idea of what you want the music to sound like, and then to just go for it. After all, it is just 15 seconds in a movement lasting 15 minutes or longer. I think Paul Lewis explains it very well:
[ from around 0:40]
Is there any specific reason for the pairing of the concertos for this cycle, eg. the first and fifth, then third and fourth, and lastly the second and the triple?
We did play around with various ideas for how to programme the cycle – chronologically, for example, beginning with 2 and ending with 5; or based on the tonality (1 and Triple being in C major, and 3 and 5 in C minor/Eb major) – but I think the pairings that we finally decided upon is probably the most musically satisfying for each individual concert. Well I think so and I hope the audience agrees!
Written for the Archduke Rudolph, the piano part in the triple concerto is comparatively easier than the other concertos.. I guess you’ll be having an easier time ahead on Saturday?
The instrumental forces in the Triple concerto – three soloists plus orchestra – brings with it a slightly different set of problems, especially of ensemble and balance; but I am very much looking forward to sharing the stage with Grace and Juan. Psychologically it is definitely easier to have co-soloists helping to share the ‘burden’! But I am really happy to be working with them – this will be the third time in less than a year that Juan and I will be performing together. Also Grace and I have actually played this concerto before, almost fifteen years ago – so it is just like old times! (Hopefully even better this time!)
Just wondering, does your mind ever wander off in a (long) orchestral tutti? If so, where does it wander to? (;
During the orchestral tuttis, I take the opportunity to try to physically relax and enjoy the music from the orchestra, and draw inspiration from that for my next entry.
At least, that’s the only answer I’m prepared to give! (;

Don’t miss this exciting finale of the first ever concerto-marathon on 16th June, at the School of the Arts Concert Hall, featuring soloists Lin Juan, Grace Lee and Lim Yan! Student tickets are available at $10. Get your tickets from Gatecrash now!

June 11, 2012

5 Questions with Lim Yan (Part I)


The SotA (School of the Arts) concert hall was abuzz with activity last friday evening, where pianists, musicians,  and fans of Beethoven gathered to watch local pianist Lim Yan perform the first and last piano concertos of Beethoven. This concert is the first part of a (rather ambitions!) three-concert series which explores the origins of the Romantic concerto, looking into the middle period of Beethoven’s life, when he was at his most prolific.

With the first and the last concertos already performed, what’s in between waits to be seen. Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with soloist Yan as he prepares to play the second, third, fourth and triple concertos of Beethoven in the concerts to come.

Hi Yan! Congratulations on a successful concert last night! You haven’t performed two concertos in a single evening before, how do you feel about it?  

Exhausted! Also relieved, that the first concert is over, and the experience will give me strength for the next two! 

If there was one thing you could change about last night’s performance, what would it be? 

Well, things always happen in performance which have never happened in practice and rehearsal. But that is part of the excitement of live performance – that every performance is different! I was once told that one should “be a perfectionist during practice and a pragmatist during performance”. 

In truth though, I am quite satisfied with how the concert went as a whole and apart from a couple of missed notes and moments, I don’t think I would change anything. 

Now, on to your cadenzas – I thought they were brilliant! You captured the “Zeitgeist” of the early romantic period with the techniques used and the keys chosen, all in the style of Beethoven.. Why did you choose to write your own? 

I’d love to take credit for the one in the Emperor! But actually every note of that is by Beethoven; the ‘cadenza’ is written into the score and in fact his very specific instructions are “do not play a cadenza here”. 

But that touches on the reason why I decided to write cadenzas for the other four concertos. The ‘cadenza’ passage in the Emperor was composed at the same time as the concerto; it was conceived of as one organic whole. The standard cadenzas for the other concertos were written much later, sometimes up to ten years after the composition of the concerto itself; and there is already a discernible shift in musical style and language. 

So I was wondering what to do about this ‘problem’, when I heard Ashkenazy’s recording of the second concerto with Solti, where he plays (I think) his own cadenza, which to me sounded much more in keeping with the rest of the concerto. I guess you could say I took inspiration from that. 

So.. Besides the already-written-out cadenza in the Emperor, you had 4 others to work on. How did you go about it? 

For me it wasn’t an orderly process – there was some ‘doodling’ on the piano, playing around with the themes from the concerto; careful study of the score to look for themes and motifs which I might use; researching other pianists’ and composers’ cadenzas for fresh ideas and insights; etc. For instance, the ending to the cadenza for the first concerto is, um, “borrowed” from Barenboim; some other passages are from Beethoven himself; and for the second concerto I am actually pretty much going to play Ashkenazy’s cadenza, to the best of my transcribing abilities. 

The upcoming concert features the 3rd and 4th concertos, both of which are rather daunting – the emotional tension in the 3rd and the technical difficulty of the 4th (Beethoven himself referred to it as being difficult), is this the most challenging concert to prepare for?  

The fourth concerto was one that was most elusive for me when I was preparing it, but I have gotten more and more comfortable with it over the course of rehearsing with the orchestra. I don’t know about most challenging – to me the entire cycle is challenging – but I know that I am looking forward to it!

Join The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) in the remaining two of this special concert series on 13 and 16 June at SOTA Concert Hall, featuring Lim Yan in a first-ever “concerto marathon”! Student tickets are available at $10. Get your tickets from Gatecrash now!

May 30, 2012

Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists – a review

Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists – a review

I once asked a violist, “How would you feel if someone told you that you played like a violinist? Would you see it as a compliment or otherwise?” He chuckled and thought for a while, before replying, “if that person meant the freedom in playing, then yes, but otherwise perhaps not…” he trailed off, and left it hanging.

Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists
25 May 2012
Esplanade Concert Hall
This concert was part of the Asian leg of the ensemble’s ambitious World Tour, in celebration and commemoration of their twentieth anniversary. Supported by international energy group Gazprom, these musicians were not only having fun touring the world – they were also doing a good deed; proceeds from ticket sales would be used to support the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Student Education Fund. As the orchestra filed onto stage, I noticed that it was rather male-dominated, with only three ladies. 
The Mozart was light and delectable. Bashmet had picked a slightly faster tempo than most conductors would, but that only seemed to add to the lightness and buoyancy of the music. Having never seen Bashmet conduct before, I was surprised to learn that he was one of those who believed that conducting with his bare hands was more effective than using a baton. Bashmet was very economical with his conducting  (and I was later to learn, with his playing too), there was no swaying or flowery gestures. The familiarity of the musicians with each other and with Bashmet was apparent, they responded very well to his every single stroke or flick of his wrist, creating the perfect balance of sound and energy. 
Bashmet then reappeared on stage with his Testore 1758, to gasps and cheers from the audience. Waving, no, swinging his bow to provide the tempo, the ensemble launched into the opening bars of the Paganini concertino. His viola sang demurely at times and unabashedly at other times, as if proving to Paganini himself and everyone else that violas, too, can play virtuosically and deserve to share in the limelight reserved almost exclusively for violinists. Bashmet played with his eyes glued to the music as though sight-reading (and I suspect he really was!), standing firmly with his feet apart and practically motionless otherwise. The music that came forth from his viola, however, had such a warm personality and a full-bodied tone! The role of orchestra director was passed between Bashmet and the concert master, who held the ensemble together when he  (literally)  had his hands full. The ensemble seemed to be veering out of control at some fast passages in the third movement, sometimes even overpowering Bashmet, but they seemed to regain control almost immediately.
Bashmet took back the reins as conductor for the Rossini, and the ensemble sounded much better with him at the helm.  If there are two things that the Moscow Soloists can do exceptionally well, it is to, despite their small size, produce such a beautifully sonorous mass of sound that resonates all the way to the top of the concert hall, and to play diminuendos until niente, leaving the audience straining their ears and wondering if there is  any sound left. The third movement in particular was wonderfully memorable, with some delightful interwoven lines between a solo cello, double bass, and violin. 
‘Does being Russian help one play Russian music better?’ I mused as I watch the orchestra settle back in after the intermission. The next two works on the programme were by Russian composers, the Souvenir di Florence by Tchaikovsky, not before Stravinsky’s Russian Song. Beginning tentatively as if tiptoeing quietly, Bashmet’s viola got bolder as it broke out into a joyful Russian folk dance, and ended as discreetly as it began.  
Leaving the best and biggest for the last, the ensemble impressed by breezing through the faster passages with charm and ease. The loving conversations in the second movement between solo instruments, while accompanied by the light pizzicato of strings, was especially sweet. The last movement required some very good bow-handling skills, which the Moscow Soloists demonstrated with precision and poise, driving the work to a triumphant end, dazzling the audience while at it. 
More cheers and standing ovations ensued, and the audience got more – a teasing, comical Polka by Schnittke, ending with a whoop from the ensemble.  After thanking the audience and speaking about the tour, Bashmet said “And now we play some unfamous composer’s work…” in heavily-accented English and proceeded to conduct the ensemble as they played the Happy Birthday tune. Pausing after the tune ended, they then played it again in a number of variations, from polka to waltz, then Argentine tango (in minor key) to American tango (with its characteristic tango rhythms and a sunny major disposition), and finally, a Czardas! [*update* Mingyen has just identified the encore as the Happy Birthday Variations by Peter Heidrich]
Here’s wishing Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists the warmest birthday greetings, and more fun-filled years of music-making ahead! Happy 20th anniversary! 

Congratulations to the winners of the Ticket Giveaway Contest, Tan Wen-Yi (left) and Joshua Koo (right)! I believe they enjoyed the concert as much as I did (:
May 25, 2012

The Music, Our Works – some thoughts on the concert


I don’t usually put up reviews so quickly, but with three concerts and one masterclass to attend this week, I feel that I have to write this now or else the memory of last night’s concert might be blurred and mishmashed with tonight’s. So here’s my thoughts, for Bernard and gang.

“And who, pray, made all these pretty songs?” asked Elisabeth.

“Oh,” said Eric, “you can tell that by listening to the rubbishy things—tailors’ apprentices and barbers and such-like merry folk.”

Reinhard said: “They are not made; they grow, they drop from the clouds, they float over the land like gossamer, hither and thither, and are sung in a thousand places at the same time. We discover in these songs our very inmost activities and sufferings: it is as if we all had helped to write them.”

– Theodore Storm, from Immensee

The Music, Our Works
24 May 2012
The Arts House Living Room

“Pieces are somewhat like photographs, snapshots of a composer’s life that reflect the situations, emotional states and feelings the composer is going through”, said Alicia, summing up the post-concert dialogue last night in a succinct and memorable statement.

It was about this time last year that I had to perform Bernard’s Looking through the Unbondable Links of Hours after doing a triathlon the day before. That concert also marked my first performance encounter with “new music” (I certainly must clarify, I use the term “new music” in this post to mean music composed recently in the span of the last five years, whose composers are still living, and composing), involving unconventional oboe-playing techniques such as quarter-tones and pitch bending among other techniques, and the structured randomness of Bernard’s form of music notation.

This year however, I am most delighted to be in the audience, watching and listening to five of my ex-NAFA schoolmates’ compositions. Opening the concert on a very somber tone was Ernest Thio’s I Felt a Funeral in my Brain. Written for piano, two voices and ukulele, the title of this piece was based on a poem with the same name, and another poem Death is a Dialogue Between, both by Emily Dickinson. Pervading the entire piece as if underlying funeral march were chords by the piano. Pianist Samuel King coaxed out the darker tones of the piano and alternated this with dream-like running notes on the higher registers, all while Chloe Toh and Ernest duetted and duelled in song and dialogue, floating lightly above it all.

De Silva Alicia Joyce’s piece, simply titled The Cadenza, was taken from her Suite for (solo) Viola. This work, I daresay, demands a violist who can not only play virtuosically, but also theatrically. Atonal and without a fixed key centre (at least to my ears), violist Christoven Tan did just that, bringing out the emotions in the piece with his playing and facial expressions. Transiting from the senza misura sections to the fast, intense and metrical sections, he tackled it energetically and with theatrical flair.

My One True Love is a melodious, programmatic work (complete with storyline!) for violin, clarinet, glockenspiel and piano. In three movements, the work sounded almost like a soundtrack to a soppy lovey-dovey Taiwanese drama! Although the harmonies were somewhat predictable and the lines a tad cheesy, there was some very nice writing, of which the glockenspiel added a sprinkle of brightness and cheerfulness to the piece.

Following that was the second of three works Ernest Thio presented for the evening. This one, called Poise, was a melancholic little character piece to represent a highly stressful period of his life sometime last year. It is peppered with ethnic influence, written for two Chinese stringed instruments – the Zhonghu and the Erhu.

A change of mood was brought about by Lu Heng’s Blues of the Day. Using the date of the performance (24.5.12), he used the numerals to create the motif (re-fa-sol-do-re), which entire piece was improvised upon. In a quasi-blues style, the ensemble was a piano trio with an added viola, forming a quartet of eclectic fun and fusion. In fact, the approximately six minutes of music was encapsulated into a single sheet of music, making me wonder what was written on that piece of paper! I was apparently not the only one who had that thought, as another member of the audience later asked the same question at the post-concert dialogue.

And It Happens To Drop From Beneath for solo violin was selected as the set piece for the semi-finals (Artist Category) of the 2011 National Piano & Violin Competition, following an open call for scores. I have often heard about this work from Bernard himself, but I have not heard it. It was a soliloquy for violin, making the violinist take on a wide range of different personalities. The structure was well-explained in the programme notes, guiding the listener through the soliloquy. It was charming in its own way and enjoyable in all its seriousness, to hear the wide range and versatility of the violin.

Ending off was yet another character piece by Ernest Thio, Nian (translating roughly to reminiscence?), in memory of his maternal grandmother, who lived and worked in a Chinese temple. Not unlike the opening piece, there existed an underlying Buddhist chant-music theme on the piano that unified the work, accompanied by the gentle strumming of the ukulele and long tones on the Zhonghu and Erhu.

From morbid to quirky, melancholic to blues, there was indeed something for everyone, as the composers had promised (;

May 23, 2012

Hiromi: The Trio Project – a review


Jazz piano trios are one of the most fun groups to play in, because all three instruments (piano, bass, drums) do their own thing and the ranges of the instruments do not overlap. There is therefore no clashing of chords with other instruments (eg. acoustic guitars) or prima donna solo lines by treble instruments (ie. electric guitar) that interfere with the pianist. As such, the pianist is almost always the leader of the trio, free to improvise whatever they want.

Despite being only three in number, the instruments are so complementary and self-sufficient that sometimes, adding just one more instrument would be one too many.

I heard of Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara back in 2007 when a friend of mine lent me her album Another Mind, and I was blown away by her complex, virtuosic and stylistic playing. Her jazz would somehow turn into progressive rock, at times she was bluesy, and at other times, literally “piano-shredding” as some guitarists would say. Take, for example, her rendition of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm.

See what I mean? And I thought the original Gershwin piano composition was tough, this is insane! I really wonder how her mind functions…

Hiromi: The Trio Project
22 May 2012
Esplanade Concert Hall

Anyway, when M asked me if I wanted to watch Hiromi with him, I jumped at the chance to, excited at the thought of watching her live. She would be playing with Anthony Jackson on the bass and Steve Smith on the drums, both well-known in the jazz scene. After all, I always wondered how she could play so many notes/lines at the same time. Most music on CDs can be added layer by layer and undergo much editing, is her playing for real?

M had gotten us some really good seats in Circle 1, high enough to see the trio nicely without being too high. The trio walked onto the stage with much cheering and clapping, and Hiromi was every bit as spunky as I imagined her to be, with her hair cut short into a bob, somewhat spiky. She was dressed in a black sleeveless cotton dress with tights and strappy heels.

Comfortably settled behind their instruments, they opened the set with two tracks from the latest album Voice, called Desire, and Delusion. Within the opening bars the trio had flaunted their prowess, gelling together so happily and well. Both songs were percussive and “fusion” in nature, with passages allowing each musician to show off their pyrotechnics of virtuosity. Resting on top of the grand piano was a smaller digital keyboard, those that allowed for sounds to be manipulated and switched into funky, groovy timbres. Switching effortlessly from right-hand on the grand piano and left-hand on the keyboard to vice versa, at time pushing the other buttons to change the timbre, and then sometimes both hands hammering on the grand piano, I wondered if she had some five other invisible hands hidden under her dress helping her! As she played, she was practically dancing, swinging her legs, tapping her feet, and at times also doing what guitarists call “head-banging”. ‘She’d play with her hands AND both feet if it were possible’, whispered M, and I could not have agreed more.

After the first two numbers, she took the microphone, stepped away from the piano, and began to talk a little. In that instant she underwent a total transformation, smiling chirpily and speaking like a typical kawaii (cutesy) Japanese schoolgirl. ‘Thank you, everyone, thanks! I’ve missed Singapore so much, and I’m so glad to be back here!’ she said with a heavy Japanese accent, to more cheers and applause from the audience. One couldn’t help but fall in love with her bubbly personality. And then it was back to the piano, with yet another song from Voice, called Now or Never. This song opened with much more groovy notes from her synthesizer, and once again she was switching from small keyboard to piano. More fusion music followed, displays of virtuosity where her left hand played a syncopated rhythm and her right hand danced across the piano, as if playing nonsense but with every note falling into its perfect place. Pounding away with her muscular arms, she even used her fist at times. The organisers should really have put up a sign saying Please do not try this at home!

Jackson and Smith left the stage, and Hiromi took centre stage. This was Hiromi at one of her more personal, intimate moments, caressing the piano with a bluesy number. The two then crept back on stage, as Hiromi began with what was possibly the most daring, yet beautiful piece of the evening. As she started playing the opening chords of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, her years of classical training showed the perfect balance of melody and harmony…and…wait a minute.. Where did all those jazz chords come from?! The audacity of it all! The classical piece was transformed into the sweetest blues nocturne, flowing from her fingertips and joined by a soft bass and shuffling drums.

The concert came to a close when she picked up the pace and ended with a long, impressive drums solo by Smith. Naturally, the trio received standing ovations from all around, taking two curtain calls and appearing once more to play an encore. Such artistry, I think even Beethoven would have been impressed!

May 23, 20120

A feeling of heimweh was evoked when a friend quoted me the following passage,

Frisch weht der Wind
Der heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilst du?

Ridiculous, because I am home in Singapore. Maybe it’s because I do miss wandering the streets, churches and museums of Deutschland though.. Of course, I doubt he was referring to me, as I am neither Irisch nor Kind. But to find in someone who quotes Wagner and TS Eliot…

Wirklich ein Schatz (:

May 13, 2012

The Philharmonic Orchestra – Lim Yan Plays the Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos

The Philharmonic Orchestra – Lim Yan Plays the Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos

“I occasionally play works by contemporary composers and for two reasons. First to discourage the composer from writing any more and secondly to remind myself how much I appreciate Beethoven.” – Jascha Heifetz 

 Many can boast of having played a Beethoven piano concerto, and but few can perform all five, and the triple concerto, within the span of a week (and from memory too?!!). In June, talented Singaporean pianist Lim Yan will attempt to perform the six concerti in three concerts, accompanied by The Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Lim Yau. He is joined by Lin Juan on the cello and Grace Lee on the violin for the triple concerto.

Here’s a video interview with the soloist as he speaks on preparing the concerti and his thoughts:

Join The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) in this special concert series on 8, 13 and 16 June at SOTA Concert Hall, featuring Lim Yan in a first-ever “concerto marathon”! Student tickets are available at $8  before 25 May, and $10 after. Get your tickets from Gatecrash now! Early bird discount ends 25th May.

May 11, 2012

Yuri Bashmet & the Moscow Soloists Ticket Giveaway Contest!


Described by The New York Times as “the greatest viola player of modern times” and by The Times of London as “the world’s best living musician”, Yuri Bashmet has carved out a unique reputation in a field where few violists have been able to sustain successful solo careers.

The Moscow Soloists was assembled by Yuri Bashmet from the finest talents of the renowned Moscow Conservatory. The string ensemble made its debut in May 1992 with a concert at the big hall of their alma mater and at the Salle Pleyel in Paris.

In the two decades since, this acclaimed chamber group has performed more than 1,500 times in more than 60 countries across the world, including at concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, London’s Barbican and Royal Albert Hall and the Tivoli in Copenhagen.
It has been hailed as one of the finest orchestras in this genre, with a wide-ranging repertoire that has paired it with noted Russian soloists such as Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Gidon Kremer (violin), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello) and Viktor Tretyakov (violin), and foreign artists such as Sarah Chang (violin, USA), Barbara Hendricks (soprano, USA), James Galway (flute, USA), Lynn Harrell (cello, USA), Mario Brunello (cello, Italy) and Thomas Quasthoff (bass, Germany).
Its recordings have won accolades and awards, including a Grammy for its 2008 ONYX recording of Stravinsky and Prokofiev.
The ensemble is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding with a world tour taking in more than 80 cities, including New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Berlin, Rome, Warsaw, Helsinki, London, Geneva, Verbier, Washington, Moscow, St.Petersburg, Minsk and Kiev.  They will play in Singapore for one night only on May 25, 2012.

Want to win a pair of tickets to catch Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists in concert? All you have to do is answer the following question by commenting on this post.

Tell us, in 100 words or less, who is your favourite Russian composer or what is your favourite Russian piece of music and why?

Below the comment, include your FULL name, email address, and contact details.

The two most creative answers will win a pair of tickets each! Contest closes on 19th May 2012, at 2359hrs. Winners will be notified by email on 20th May.

The Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists concert is proudly sponsored by global energy company, Gazprom group. For more information, visit

May 11, 2012

On the Beatles, being married to your instrument, and the Moscow Soloists – Exclusive interview with Maestro Yuri Bashmet!

On the Beatles, being married to your instrument, and the Moscow Soloists – Exclusive interview with Maestro Yuri Bashmet!

The great violist Yuri Bashmet comes to Singapore as part of a 20th anniversary World Tour with the Moscow Soloist. Plink, Plonk, Plunk catches up with him in an exclusive email interview before his concert on the 25th of May at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

Hello Maestro Bashmet, and thank you ever so much for agreeing to this e-mail interview! This year is very special for you and your ensemble as you will be celebrating your 20th anniversary. Warmest congratulations! I hear you have planned a big world tour – UK, USA, and every continent.  

How did the idea of a world tour come about and how do you cope with being on tour for the whole year? 

Being in a concert and playing to a live audience allows me to communicate with audiences around the world – one of the most important things in my profession. 
The emotions shared during the performance is valuable and important – to me as an individual and as a musician.  

Have you been playing the same programme, or changing it from one continent to another?  

It really depends on the place that I am performing at. The taste is different for every country. Also, there aren’t many pieces around in the viola repertoire and not all of them are well-known. This is one of the main reasons why the Moscow Soloists was formed – so that we can offer more variety in terms of the pieces we can play to the audience. 

Tell us more about the Moscow Soloists. Have they all been with you for 20 years?  

One of the reasons why I formed the Moscow soloists was because of the lack of viola repertoire to perform. I was touring a lot around the world and I gradually found myself repeating a lot of pieces. So it happened and I decided to form the The Moscow Soloists. The ensemble brings together the finest talents of the renowned Moscow Conservatory. We made our debut in May 1992 with a concert at the big hall of the Salle Pleyel in Paris and the rest became history. In the last 20 years, we have performed more than 1,500 times in more than 60 countries across the world. 

Most of the musicians joined twenty years ago, and the orchestra has become a really big family during this time. 

You started out as a violinist, so how did you end up playing the viola? 

I played the violin in music school because of my mum and I turned out to be the best violinist in school. However, it was during the time when The Beatles was really popular and I actually preferred playing the guitar! 

In the end, I changed to the viola as I had a friend who told me: “You would make a talented viola player – you would need much less time to practise, because if you continue with your violin you will need five, six, seven hours of practice a day; with the viola you will need much less time, and then you will have more time for your guitar!” 

This is how I started playing the viola. 

You’ve had your viola since the 1970s, any reason for not changing instruments?  

No, it has been more than 20 years since I bought it but somehow I got on very well with it. It’s like being married. I’ve used it so much now that I can’t imagine looking for any other instrument to replace it. We have built a mutual understanding with each other.  

What were your fondest musical memories while growing up?  

I had a few strong musical impressions in my life which really impressed me. Surprisingly, the first musical experience was not associated with classical music at all. When I was a child, I was very impressed with Beatles. However, there were two classical works that changed me and led me to fall in love with classical music with all my heart. It was the Second Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff and the Sixth Symphony by Tchaikovsky.  

I became interested with classical music after that, and have lived for it since then. This does not mean that I do not listen to music from other genres. I am, as a matter of fact, interested in all that is real and informative. But classical music remains my core profession and my life.  

How did you get into conducting, and do you prefer conducting, playing solo (with an orchestra), or playing chamber works?  

I like them all. When I conduct, I get pleasure from conducting and when I play, I tell myself “No, I like to play more than I do for conducting”. If I mix up these feelings and start choosing, I would not play or conduct as good as I possibly can.  

You will be overseeing the formation of an all-Russian youth orchestra for the 2014 Winter Olympics. How will that work out?  

I am actually the first ambassador of the Olympic Games in Sochi. When I was asked to become an ambassador, I wondered what was the responsibility of the Ambassador of the Olympics. The organizers of the Olympic Games, who are my close friends now, assured me that I had to do almost nothing. An ambassador represented by his own creativity and his work, already helps to promote the idea of the Olympic Games to the world. But it seemed to me that this is not so interesting. For 5 years now, I have spent the winter in Sochi International Arts Festival, which has hosted leading musicians, dramatic artists, movie actors from various countries.  

In these five years, the festival has become widely known both in Russia and abroad. And today, it is one of the biggest cultural forums in Russia. Even now, it continues to develop, with every year growing in diversity. It creates a different cultural environment in Sochi during the preparation for the Olympics.  

Finally, any advice for budding musicians?  

Work hard and with enthusiasm. It’s important to think when you’re practicing on the instrument. Not to spend the empty hours, but to play thinking. And it is very important to listen and absorb like a sponge, letting the music flow through you and your understanding of music and your instruments.

Watch this space for a chance to win a pair of tickets to catch Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists in a one-night-only concert! 

The Yuri Bashmet & the Moscow Soloists concert is proudly sponsored by global energy company, Gazprom group. For more information, visit

May 4, 2012

The Music, Our Works – An evening of New Music

The Music, Our Works – An evening of New Music

Music is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including, and particularly, an order between man and time. 

– Igor Stravinsky

Five local composers unite to present an evening of their original compositions at The Arts House. This concert showcases their common past as music graduates from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and at the same time, demonstrates how they have grown and developed musically and individually upon graduation.

I particularly remember last year’s concert because Bernard invited me to play oboe for his piece, Seeing through the Unbondable Links of Hours. It was a thoroughly stressful but fun experience, navigating through the score with no regular meter, having to listen for cues all around from the percussionist, violinist, pianist.

This year’s installment features an eclectic combination of solo and chamber works, promising something for everyone!

Come, spend an eye-opening evening with these up-and-coming young composers in the comfort of the Living Room at The Arts House, as they present their compositions and share their creative ideas with the audience in a post-concert dialogue session. Tickets are priced at $18, email to book your tickets.

April 28, 2012

In between the old and the new…


It feels surreal, attending a 12-17th century vocal music concert last night, and knowing that the one later (L’arc~en~ciel) is going to be so different. With it being the first rock concert I’m attending, I have no idea of the concert etiquette i have to observe! Stand, shout, cheer? Clap after every song, or no clapping in between sets? What do I wear?

Yesterday’s concert was… quite interesting. The chaconne with four voices was simply beautiful. More on it later (;

April 13, 2012

Yuri Bashmet & the Moscow Soloists


“The viola is commonly (with rare exceptions) played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a string instrument once upon a time.”

Richard Wagner, in 1869, quoted in Gattey Peacocks on the Podium (1982)

Violists have long been considered to be second-class citizens in the orchestra because their orchestral parts are (most of the time) non melodic and easier than violin parts. The instrument itself has less carrying power than the violin or cello, and has very a limited repertoire of solo works.  On top of that, studies have shown that most viola players start out playing the violin. One of the first assumptions in school orchestras is that the conductor tends to switch the poor violinists over to viola, where they will do less harm.

However, going against all odds is  Russian conductor and violist Yuri Bashmet, who belongs to the category of rare exceptions in the above quote.  He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, and began to develop his career as a solo player in the 1970s. Being one who is not afraid to take risks, he started conducting in the 1980s and in 1992, set up his orchestra of talented musicians, all graduates of the Moscow Conservatory.

Here’s a video of a delightful collaboration between Bashmet and Martha Argerich.

Bashmet performs in Singapore with the Moscow Soloists for a one night only concert, featuring repertoire by Mozart, Rossini, Stravinsky and others.

Watch this space for an exclusive interview with the Maestro, and stand a chance to win tickets to his concert on the 25th of May at the Esplanade Concert Hall!

The Yuri Bashmet & the Moscow Soloists concert is proudly sponsored by global energy company, Gazprom. For more information, please visit

April 12, 2012

Analysis for Performance – How do you measure a good work/person?

Analysis for Performance – How do you measure a good work/person?

The favourite ex-lecturer always has a way with words, and never fails to make me think or look at things at a different angle. Our meeting earlier was no different. Over a leisurely stroll and a light dinner, we spoke on a few topics. She asked, “How does one measure a good work or person?” Apparently it all boils down to 3 Es – Excellence, engagement, and ethics. This concept was recently laid out by the Americans, as a GoodWork Project, to recognize individuals or groups which exemplify good work – work that is excellent in quality, socially responsible, and meaningful to its practitioners. Taking this one step further, she shared about the humility in Vivaldi’s character (and translated a letter by Vivaldi in Italian?!!!), among other traits, that distinguished him from the other composers.

The other reason we had met was for a videoconference lecture, the first of its kind in the history of NAFA, which was to be held later that evening. Time and space is a funny thing, isn’t it? I wondered before, why didn’t God create the world with just one time zone to avoid all the confusion? Delivering this lecture/masterclass was Professor Barbara Barry of Lynn University in the USA. Our lecture started at 8pm on the 12th of April, and there she was, giving the lecture at 8am in the US. Extremely early for her and pretty late for us, but that seemed like the most comfortable time for both parties.

Professor Barry holds five degrees in music, three of which are in theory and analysis. The aim of the lecture was to explore how Classical music performances can be navigated from an analytical perspective, and how critical analysis can empower musicians to communicate the intention of the composer. The chosen composer was W.A. Mozart, and the repertoire discussed was performed by students in the BMus programme.

After the stage was set, Jeremy Wong gave a beautiful rendition of the first movement of the K466 D minor piano concerto, accompanied by third year student Zhou Yun. Professor Barry then launched into an explanation of how only two out of twenty-seven of Mozart’s piano concertos were written in minor keys and how the key of D minor characterizes drama, citing examples from his Requiem, Don Giovanni, string quartet K421, and the Queen of the Night’s first aria from Die Zauberflöte.

More than once, she emphasized the fact that her aim was to analyse the works “from the outside in”. She mentioned that Mozart was trying to play off the dramatic character of the concerto by putting the very first solo entry alone, after the accompaniment set the dramatic scene. Describing it as “having a sense of urgency and inward energy”, she suggests that the piano entry should be played a little more vulnerably, rather than with a matter-of-fact attitude which Jeremy had started off with. “You have to differentiate between moving towards a key and being in a key”, she quips, explaining how important the bass line is in giving the listeners a sense of harmonic direction, taking the listener to the dominant. With her keen analytical mind, she also explained how the trills in passagework section (used for the soloist to show off) had double functions, to end off and also start a new section.

With time running out, it was Liew Jie Ying’s turn with the first movement of the C minor sonata K457. Her playing was impressive as well, delivering the running passages evenly with clarity of tone and a firm touch. Professor Barry zoomed right in onto the last two bars, specifically the last two chords. “You’ve got to make the listener feel like they’re holding their breath”, she said, insisting that Mozart put them there as a dramatic afterthought, so they are not to be played with a ritardando to maintain the mental concentration and suspense.

Moving on to the opening, she likened it to the opening of the Jupiter symphony, dramatic, followed by a lyrical and almost painful answer. Here, she took quite some time to drive a point across – the importance of silence (rests) in the music. “Don’t smudge into the silence, because after the silence comes in new and different material.”

Ending off this segment, she left with the words, “A large part of playing a piece well has to do with the understanding of the style, not only the technical expertise. You have to recreate the character of the piece, and project the music like an actor projects his voice on stage!”

The final piece of the evening was the Fantasy and Fugue in C, K394. It was no mean feat to memorize a fugue, which Dong Zilu did with much difficulty. She left too large a gap between the movements, losing the connection between the fantasy and the fugue. Professor Barry suggested thinking about the last note of the first movement and the first note of the next movement to keep the connectivity, which worked quite well. She also explained a little about the history, how Mozart drew inspiration from the style of J.S. Bach, and how the prelude was to be a free and introductory piece , contrasted with the strict and mathematical fugue. “Get an idea of how the composer thinks, and go ahead and ask yourself. What’s Mozart going do after this?”

Her parting words summed up the lesson for the entire evening concisely – “Don’t only focus on improving your technique, but become informed musicians”. Thus ended the first ever “live” collaboration successfully, looking forward to more happy collaborations in future! The internet really makes the world much smaller, doesn’t it?

April 4, 2012



…is attending a concert of Medieval vocal music one evening, and attending a Japanese rock band concert on the next evening.

The Hilliard Ensemble will be doing a two-part concert on the 27th of April at the Esplanade Concert Hall, with the first part featuring music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt interspersed with medieval vocal music, and Morimur for the second part, which inspired J.S. Bach’s Partita for solo violin in d minor, particularly the Chaconne. Between Bach’s chorales and the chaconne is apparently this hidden link, described as “an adventure in speculative musicology”. Below is one of the more prominent chorales, “Christ lag in Todesbanden” and the Chaconne as presented by the Hilliard Ensemble.

In contrast, the concert on the 28th of April is a long-awaited one. I’ve liked J-Rock since secondary school days,  L’arc~en~ciel, Malice Mizer and X-Japan were among my favourite bands. A friend was quite shocked that I listen to both heavy metal and classical, thinking that both are at loggerheads and different ends of the spectrum. I beg to differ, seeing the apparent similarities in both. In fact, this article suggests that fans of heavy metal and classical music have more in common than they think.

Stay Away by L’arc~en~ciel was the first song I ever heard by the band, and I was mesmerized by Tetsu’s melodic bass lines. This video is from approximately 10 years ago. Enjoy!

Dissonance or not, I know it’s going to be an absolutely fantastic weekend (:

December 31, 2011

Introducing… The BLCMB!


Yesterday I received an email from a fellow music critic, composer and blogger half the world away, introducing himself as Colin Eatock. He has compiled a huge and very extensive list of classical music blogs and websites from all around the world, and put it here. It has a rather cool name too – the Big List of Classical Music Blogs!

This list, along with Colin’s own site, can be found in the blogroll on the right. Do check it out (:

October 24, 2011



Inspiration is a funny thing. When at the piano, all I can think of is running; and when doing a long distance run, all I can think of is playing/composing music…

I read with much disappointment that the government will be gazetting Bukit Brown Cemetery to make way for urban redevelopment. When touring europe on my grad trip in July 2009, I made it a point to visit the various graveyards and cemeteries in Italy, France and Germany, as a sort-of pilgrimage to the composers whose music I’ve played and admired. In my search, I’ve been to the graves of Stravinsky in Venice, Chopin and Bizet in Paris, Vivaldi’s in Vienna (which was exhumed so the tech university could be built), among a few others. It was purely sublime to walk along the cobbled paths and gaze at the weather-beaten graves. Some tombs were majestic, with angels guarding them, others looked like telephone booths, and still others were just tiny little slabs of marble on the ground. There were some which dated back to the 1800s, and some which were as recent as 2008, standing almost side-by-side in the same graveyard. Call it morbid if you would, but this sparked an interest in burial sites, and as I’ve discovered, each graveyard has a different story to tell.

Upon returning to Singapore, I embarked on a little project with my good friends Huazheng and Reuben, documenting the story of the Choa Chu Kang cemeteries. This humble project, by some stroke of luck I believe, made its way to be selected as the Foreign Correspondents’ Association Multimedia Journalism Prize of 2010.

Since then, I’ve wanted to carry this further, but have not found any inspiration to do so. Until now. Perhaps it’s as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures, in this case desperate times calling for inspiration.

Guys, I think it’s time for a sequel.

October 11, 2011

On manufacturing music..


“Your soul has to want to speak and you do it when it’s appropriate. If you force yourself, then you won’t be successful – you’re manufacturing music.” – Yanni

September 24, 2011

Behold the Lamb of God – A Concert Review

Behold the Lamb of God – A Concert Review
It was almost a full house in the auditorium of Bartley Christian Church, where many gathered to attend the annual concert of the Hallelujah Oratorio Society. The house lights dimmed, the string ensemble was ready in front, the choir walked onstage, and the stage lights came on. It was Showtime.

If anything, it is the sheer dedication that the members of the Hallelujah Oratorio Society (HOS) show, along with their passion for serving the Lord, which touched the hearts of their audience that evening. The fruit of their labour shows and culminates in this concert after eight to nine months of rehearsals. Members have given up some weekends and public holidays to hold intensive 3-day rehearsals with conductor Lu Lee Hui, who resides in Sabah and makes trips to Singapore to train the choir. The choir is, at other times, directed by Rev Lee Chong Min, who founded and grew the for thirty-four years and counting. The HOS comprises of over 100 members from different churches and different walks of life. The newest priligy member has been with the HOS for less than a year, and some of the others have been in the choir since it was founded.

Titled “Behold the Lamb of God”, the concert was divided into seven different segments, with narration in between to set the tone for each segment. Although the songs were taken from almost anywhere and put together for the concert, it was evident that this was not random, but careful programming on the part of the organizers.
Opening the concert was “Sanctus”, meaning “Holy” in Latin. It was based loosely on a slow movement of Bach’s concerto for oboe BWV 1056. It was interesting to see how the hymn Holy, Holy Holy was juxtaposed with Bach’s theme. Following that was Lord, I lift your name on High, a very different rendition from the Hillsong version that is usually sung in churches. Psalm 1 was mellower, almost pastorale-like, but transformed later on, into a grand, broad wall of sound when singing of the Lord’s righteousness in the later verses, “Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the LORD knows the way of the righteous; but the way of the ungodly shall perish.”
The second section took a turn for the darker as it documented the death of Jesus, starting with The Garden of Gethsemane, describing the agonizing scene where Jesus pleads with God, “Father, take this cup from me,” and later on, “Not my will but yours be done,” creation heard him say / The garden of Gethsemane, where all alone Christ prayed.” This was preceded by the heartrending rendition of Face the cross and the jubilant Resurrection Alleluias, proclaiming the resurrection of Christ.
Soprano Leona Quek, who took to the stage in a black gown, then treated the audience to two solo works. Accompanied by the pianist, she showcased her virtuosity by singing Mozart’s spirited Exultate Jubilate followed by the tender, passionate Via Dolorosa, describing the scene at calvary and moving the audience to tears with her sensitivity and her delicate voice. Later on, she reappeared on stage in a shimmering white gown, and further displayed her vocal prowess by singing a traditional Chinese folk song, and then the famous duet The Prayerwith a student of hers. In between her performances, the Hallelujah Singers, a chamber choir made up of a few members of the main choir, sang a variety of a capella works. They were remarkably tight as an ensemble, blending well and projecting quite well in spite of their small size.
The Hallelujah Singers

In fact, while taking notes during the performance, I found myself writing again and again on their faultless intonation and their perfect blending, not only for the Hallelujah Singers, but also for the HOS. The rest of the concert built up from the triumphal march Lead on, O King Eternal and culminated in the theme song Behold the Lamb of God. It then drew to a close with The Great Commission, not before they pronounced a benediction of God Watches Over You.

Pianist and pastor Chang Kok Sieng

Working tirelessly throughout the concert was pianist and pastor Chang Kok Sieng, of Changi Bethany Church. Not only did he have to learn a tremendous amount of music, he also had to grapple with the page flips and follow the conductor as he played for the choir. Adding the extra sparkle to the concert was a group of string players and a percussionist, organized by Hillary, a violinist from The Philharmonic Orchestra. She also arranged all the music for strings from the piano score, which was no easy feat. In all, with so much effort and very careful planning put into this concert, it was no wonder it turned out to be a huge success, of which no one would have expected anything less.

June 24, 2011

Evocations of Eternity in and through the World of Music (Part 2) – Arvo Pärt

Evocations of Eternity in and through the World of Music (Part 2) – Arvo Pärt
*Part of this article will be published in Music and Friends, a quarterly journal by the Hallelujah Oratorio Society
**Part 1 of this series was written by Benjamin Ho and published in the January edition of Music and Friends
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men..” – Ecclesiastes 3:11

Eternity, for most, is the idea of limitless existence and/or timelessness. This esoteric concept is not often thought about, and related quite closely to the topic of death. Rev Wilfred Leow of Grace Methodist Church mentioned recently in a sermon, “I think about this (death and eternity) more because as a pastor, I have attended more funerals than anyone here in the congregation has.” He also added that contemplating, meditating and preparing to preach at funerals has made the topic more real to him. Likewise, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt spent eight years in a self-imposed contemplative silence, emerging from it with a very radical transformation.

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) started his musical education at age seven, attending the music school in Rakvere, Estonia, where his family lived. He showed tremendous musical promise, and was already writing his own compositions in his early teen years. Even though he studied composition at the Tallinn Conservatory from 1957 – 1963, he had little access to what was happening in contemporary Western music because of the regimes of the old Soviet Union. He was at the forefront of his profession, being the first Estonian to experiment with serialism techniques. Reactions to his works were extreme – some were praised, some were criticized, and some were even banned! Pärt then went into the first of a few periods of contemplative silence, choosing to research and study choral part music from the 14 – 16th centuries. Emerging from the silence with his joyous 3rd symphony in 1971, he felt that it was still not “the end of (his) despair and search.” He then entered into the abovementioned eight-year period of contemplative silence, delving into plainchant and medieval music, and finally finding his voice with an utterly new composition technique that he calls tintinnabuli . He has, without any exception, remained loyal to this new technique since 1976, when Für Alina, a piece for solo piano, quietly and thoughtfully announced the arrival of his “tintinnabuli style”.

Pärt, along with John Tavener and Henryk Gorecki, are part of a growing number of “holy minimalists”, whose philosophies and music are contrary to western classical music. Their music has been described as “music of the angels”, and many, after listening to Pärt’s Tabula Rasa or Spiegel im Spiegel, claimed to feel that they caught “a glimpse of heaven”. Unlike the usual classical music that normally strives to have direction, build-ups, climaxes and resolutions, Pärt’s music doesn’t go anywhere. It is gently repetitive, meditative, and I daresay, even hypnotic. Its main purpose is contemplation, bringing the listener into an altered state, almost the same feeling one gets when deep in prayer or perhaps meditating upon a certain verse or portion of scripture. The repetitions in the music are placid, and serene, giving the listener a sense of timelessness. “Time and timelessness are connected,” wrote Pärt. “This instant and eternity are struggling within us. And this is the cause of all our contradictions, our obstinacy, our narrow-mindedness, our faith and our grief.”

For Pärt, bell-like clarity is one of the most important qualities in composing music. The score for Für Alina is the epitome of minimalism, and also minimalism at its finest. At first glance, the score seems reminiscent of Gregorian chant notation. Barely two pages long, it has neither time signature nor note stems. Notes are black dots (like crotchet/quaver note heads) or semibreves, the former representing short notes and the latter, long. In place of a tempo marking is the direction “Ruhig, erhaben, in sich hineinhorchend”, which translates roughly into “peaceful, sublimely, introspectively”. The notes are relatively easy to read and play, but to achieve the pure and ringing sound takes much sensitivity on the pianist’s part. Both left and right hand play notes simultaneously, the right hand voice moving stepwise from and to a central pitch, first up then down, and the left hand sounding the notes of the B minor triad. The two voices are joined in the tintinnabuli principle, leaving ethereal harmonies and overtones ringing.

Pärt himself describes it as; “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

The beauty of Pärt’s music is that one does not have to understand classical music to enjoy it; in fact, if one listens through the filter of Western musical values, they might find it lacking in expression and stark. However, if doing nothing for a whole day or praying in receptive silence for about an hour sounds like something you would do, then you’ll be probably be one of the many who weep inexplicably to Pärt’s music, whose poignant beauty in simplicity can unearth the reservoir of joy and sorrow in the hardest of hearts.

June 16, 2011



I lost my voice over the weekend, and what an experience it was. I had been having a sore throat since monday, was hoarse on friday, and by saturday morning, my voice just disappeared. I couldn’t talk, not even in a whisper.

Saturday was the long-awaited YA Cookout, and I was due to be Confirmed at church on sunday. How was I supposed to answer the questions by Pastor without a voice?
I learnt that just because one can’t speak,
1) people assume that they’re not listening because they don’t hear a response. They therefore nag and repeat their points over and over again.
2)your opinion is not valued, since you can’t talk back anyway
3)you get blamed instead of questioned, since you still can’t talk back.
How frustrating.
Coincidentally, I’m working on an article for the HOS, and writing about Estonian composer Arvo Part. Here’s what’s amazing – he spent eight years (!!!) of his life in contemplative silence before finally finding his composition voice. As I was thinking, praying and contemplating about how I should write this article, I sensed the Lord telling me, “Be still, my child, be still. Let others say what they want.”

“In silence is embedded the marvelous power of clarification, purification and concentration on essentials.” – Dietrich Bonhöffer

Maybe it’s not such a coincidence that I lost my voice after all.
June 6, 2011

Meaningful conversations (I) – What’s in a name?


It was one of the usual enjoyable coffee-dinner sessions I was having with my favourite ex-lecturer. We were sitting opposite each other in a cafe when she looked at me in all seriousness and said, “Natalie, you do realize that someday you will have to stop calling me Dr. K and start calling me by my name?” After some moments, she added, “After all, we’re friends…. right?”, giving me one of those looks of which to say that I’d better agree otherwise.. Uhh.. yeah, i guess.. I left that comment hanging and didn’t elaborate further. Indeed, we’re friends, but.. You’re so much more than that.

On marriage
“So when are you tying the knot?” she remarked, after we chatted about some of my ex-classmates who have gotten married. Darn, she caught me off-guard again! I looked at her and said, “Not anytime soon. If he loves me, he’ll wait..”
On drinking
I was surprised to learn that she did enjoy a glass of wine once in a while. Nice! I didn’t dare to mention that I was allergic to alcohol not in the way that children are allergic to vegetables..
On writing
“You know, C did quite well for her research paper on MT. But yours was much better,” she declared with a hint of pride. “I think you can do it”, she replied when I asked her if I should pursue a postgraduate degree. Can I really? She introduced me to the research of Adrian Chandler in the area of Vivaldi’s Violin concerti and asked if I was interested to consider doing something like that. After a prolonged period of silence, she declared with more conviction, “yes, you can probably do it”, as if confirming her earlier statement after giving it further thought.
To end the enchanting evening, we took a short walk together, then she insisted that she walk me to the bus stop, “It’s my territory, after all”, and I relented. On parting, she gave me a hug and watched as I boarded the bus. A warm, fuzzy, cuddly, sisterly hug. At that instant, for the first time in months, I felt as though everything was going to work out alright.
Thank you, for your love, encouragement and for believing in me, even when I don’t believe in myself. I’m truly blessed to have a friend like you. (:

May 22, 20110

‘You’re talking about manipulating feelings and emotions. Would it not be easier to convince people with a rational, simple and straightforward account?’

‘No. It’s impossible to initiate a rational dialogue with someone about beliefs and concepts if he has not acquired them through reason. It doesn’t matter whether we’re looking at God, race, or national pride. That’s why I need something more powerful than a simple rhetorical exposition. I need the strength of art, of stagecraft. We think that we understand a song’s lyrics, buy what makes us believe in them, or not, is the music.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, from The Angel’s Game

May 4, 2011

Trying to Tri..

Trying to Tri..
It was about this time last year during a conversation that Ansley casually mentioned, “Maybe you should think about doing triathlons..” and what a far-fetched idea it seemed. I had, at that time, just purchased my road bike. My idea of a run was not more than the 2.4km we used to do at school, and I would lounge around after every two laps of swimming. Needless to say, something needed to be done about my fitness level first.

At the recommendation of the above mentioned friend, I joined Yellowfish Swim, not knowing what to expect. Nothing could have prepared me for what happened during the first session. It was countless drills and set after set of laps, and by the end of the first class I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I had already paid for three months of class, so there was no turning back. Come tuesday evening, my heart rate would go up, and there would be butterflies in my tummy. After 8.45pm on tuesdays, the world would be a better place. Post-swim supper at Old Airport Road was a good way to unwind. There’s always something about “suffering” together that brings people closer (:

With the motivation of new friends, I had started running more and longer distances too. I signed up for the Yellow Ribbon run, and went on to complete the StanChart 10k as well. However, there was one fear I still needed to conquer – the dreaded sea swim. I was swimming fine at the pool sessions, but I had this phobia of entering the sea. Maybe it is the cool of the morning, or the colder temperature of the water, or the fact that the sea was very salty and had no boundaries, I would get a panic attack every time I entered the water. After three sessions, I still had not conquered my fear of the sea. I was labelled as one of coach’s “elites”, swimming small little triangles in the sea when everyone else was doing big loops. Then suddenly everything clicked into place, and I was swimming fine, and felt as if I could go on forever. Strange, but I’m thankful to God for it.

And there I was, swimming, cycling, and running. On separate occasions. I realized I had to do some back-to-back sessions (later I learnt that that was called brick, although I still have no idea why). Running after swimming was fine, but running after cycling was not. My legs would get all jelly-like and have a mind of their own.

Andy and Pat mentioned that Tribob was one of the most well-organized races for newbies, and encouraged me to take part. I signed up for the sprint distance, and before I knew it, it was a few days to race day. Messaging JacQ the night before made me less jittery. The advice she gave somehow seemed very logical and had a calming effect (: The next morning I woke the parents up at 6am, and they very willingly sent me to Changi. Having them there really made a difference, even though the three of us were clueless as to what to do or where to go.

As I made my way to warm up and get body-marked I saw a few familiar faces. While lining up for start of my wave I met Zaheera, whom I was blabbering to in my state of nervousness. She looked so calm and composed, and that made me feel even more scared =P The sea was calm and quite ideal for swimming at the start. About a hundred meters into the sea, I was kicked by a breast-stroker in the chest. I panicked, and frantically swam away from that person. The water began to get a bit choppy, making it quite difficult to swim at first. Someone I knew actually got stung by jellyfish, thank God I didn’t experience anything of that sort. The swim leg didn’t go too bad, and left me feeling that I could actually complete the race.

looking half-dead during the bike leg

The bike leg was the hardest. I was pedalling furiously, and there were all the guys from later waves overtaking me effortlessly. Jane zoomed past me, waving and calling out to me. Coach too, but instead of waving he shouted “Nat, down your gear!”. Pfft. Get disturbed by him even during race. I thought higher cadence was the way to go?

It began to get rainy during the run, and I was desperately looking for a toilet. I finally found one near the ferry terminal, but going to the toilet made my timing a bit slower.. The run was surprisingly shorter than I expected. I could feel a cramp coming on, so I slowed down my pace a little. Before I knew it, I was heading towards the finisher’s chute!

I was overtaken by a guy wearing a bikini-like trisuit (!!!!) at the last second who dashed in front of me and promptly proceeded to stop right after the line, blocking the way. Such an eyesore ):

After close to a year of preparation and training, I finally completed my first sprint triathlon. And I’m hooked. Thanks Alex, Ansley, Joni and little Shannen for being there to cheer us on, Varian, Chris, GY, Jacq, David and Nigel for your support, advice, and durian party!=D, and all thanks to God for bringing me safely through the race. Like Varian said, it’s time to train longer distances (:

December 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Mahlers..

A Tale of Two Mahlers..

The long awaited week was finally here, with masterclasses, a concert, and a solo performance by musicians from “one of the world’s best orchestras”. After about eleven days and many sell-out concerts in Abu Dhabi, Perth and Sydney, the Berliner Philharmoniker arrived in Singapore for their last two concerts of their longest-ever tour. Led by Chief Conductor Sir Simon Rattle, the orchestra presented a programme of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic dances and Mahler’s First Symphony for their last concert here.

Perhaps it was a stroke of fate, or intentional planning, but what was SSO thinking when they programmed a Mahler symphony three days after Berliner Philharmoniker played one? This was definitely an invitation for comparison!

The reason for the many number of Mahler works played in the 2010/11 concert season is to mark his 150th birthday in 2010 and 100th anniversary of his death in 2011.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra, playing under the baton of Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, took on Mahler’s seventh symphony. Donald Mitchell, in his extensive writings on Mahler, describes it as Mahler’s “problem child”. The dissonances, obscurity and “un-Mahlerian-ness” has been met with skepticism, criticism and hostility. Yet this symphony remains an enigma, and interpretation is left to the conductor and performers. The tenor horn solo in the first movement was bold and brash, setting the tone for what was to come. There was a hint of complacency in the orchestra’s playing, which, although energetic, got irritating a little later because of the “devil-may-care” attitude. Vänskä’s strokes were sometimes plain weird, and he was swaying on the podium, swinging his arms both to the left, then to the right. There were so many climaxes in the music that almost left one feeling seasick. In the midst of the grotesque third movement, the feeling of “are we there yet?” kept coming. The orchestra was messy most of the time, but their saving grace was the slower movements, the two “night songs”, where there was some beautiful chamber playing going on between the woodwinds, the guitar and the mandolin.

On the contrary, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s performance was polished and refined. Rattle’s every stroke had a meaning to it, and none of it was superfluous. He took on the Titan at a moderate speed, not going too fast like some other orchestras would. Rattle picked the high points in the music very selectively and meticulously worked the orchestra up, adding in layer by layer, into a big crescendo. It wasn’t difficult to see why they market themselves as “many soloists, one orchestra”. Such was their control and projection, that when the brasses were blasting the opening of the fourth movement, the strings soaring high above could still be heard. From the morose solo double bass solo opening of the third movement to the tender, heartfelt and lyrical fourth movement, the Berliner Philharmoniker shone in every way.

Local music reviewer Dr Chang Tou Liang describes the two orchestras as David vs. Goliath. Maybe he wasn’t wrong. Or just maybe, if SSO had played under a conductor they were more familiar with, they could have done much, much better.

On a much lighter note, LY and I were waiting for Dominik (the Berlin Phil cor anglais player) at Mandarin Oriental after the concert when we saw none other than Sir Simon Rattle! I was starstruck for a moment, and after my brain started functioning, I walked up to him, congratulated him on the successful concert, and asked for a picture. He willingly obliged (:

December 3, 2010

Birthday Blues

Birthday Blues

And so, I turn twenty-something in a few hours.

What’s the big deal about birthdays anyway? One year older, a few more wrinkles, and a year closer to death. Maybe people celebrate for you because you’re one year older and closer to their age. Or maybe they celebrate because you turn older than all of them.

Maybe they just want a treat from you. It’s a funny tradition in my family, that when it’s your birthday, you’re supposed to give the family a treat. And not just immediate family, but aunts, uncles and grandmas too! That means at least 12 people, or at least $200 spent on a meal to “celebrate”. Oh, and I have to find a date when everyone is free, SMS to invite them, and book the location. Too much work! Of course they give presents. Most of the time I get something I can use. And every year, some aunt will give something totally useless and worthless, like a display ornament or paperweight. It’s the type of thing that I cannot throw away because I feel guilty, I can’t give it to the poor because there’s no use for it, and so I end up displaying it somewhere, hoping that it will “accidentally” get knocked down, or broken, or chewed up by my dog.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for my 2X years of life, and to God for seeing me through it. But I still can’t help feeling a little blue. I’ve got on 5th December

-a performance (which means practice, practice, practice)
-a race (drat, I havent trained for 2 weeks!)
-an article due for publication (still incomplete)

So that means work and practice and no partying. I’m teaching tomorrow as well ):

Anyway, it might seem shameless to put a wishlist here, but a few people have asked what I wanted for my birthday, so the idea of creating this came to mind. Here goes:

– a tri-suit (for my first triathlon in may!)
– a polar watch (got it, thanks daddy)
– a Starbucks tumbler (thanks Sally!)
– Eddie Higgins CDs (I don’t have any, so any one would do. Let me know if you’re buying it and which one)


-a constant supply of good reeds!
– for friends and family to be healthy
– a scholarship to study early (17th century and before) music

Anyone has suggestions on where I can take my family out for dinner?

It’s Patches’ 4th birthday on 6 dec. Maybe I’ll take him to a dog cafe for lunch. Or bake him a cake. Or something. I wonder if he even knows it’s his birthday (;

November 23, 20100

The gathering with the oboe gang was much-needed. Surprisingly, there wasn’t as much reed talk and more variety in pieces played. Schumann was a hot piece this year (or maybe it was just herd instinct) and we took turns playing accompaniment. Veda brought her baroque oboe and taught me to play a scale. Air pressure from the reed is much less than on a modern oboe reed, making it more comfortable to play. However, the lack of keys make fingerings quite awkward.

On a side note,

Anyone up for it? 21km next June (:
November 10, 2010

fire, fiery, fired, fried!


“For goodness sake, please update your blog! You have a Wikio rating to keep, you know!”

– a not-so-ardent fan of PlinkPlonkPlunk =P

Last night’s concert with The Philharmonic Orchestra playing Stravinsky’s Firebird in celebration of the 100th year anniversary of the work was exhilarating, energetic and very inspiring. From the stomping, driving Infernal Dance to the stately and sweet Rondo of the princesses, it was nothing but orchestral brilliance.
The evening ended off with a fiery spicy dinner at thai express (:
Longer review to come, watch this space!
For now, here’s Disney’s version of the Firebird from Fantasia 2000. Enjoy!

September 4, 2010

Elijah – A Review

“You can’t play Rachmaninoff on a harpsichord,” said a cellist-composer friend of mine, explaining why modern instruments are here to stay (and will be a permanent problem for historically-informed enthusiast). True, but Mendelssohn had his own way of doing combining the old and the new. He wrote Elijah, an oratorio, modeled after Baroque predecessors Handel and Bach, but weaved in the lyricism and orchestration characteristic of the romantic period.

Albeit the length of the entire work (two-and-a-half hours, excluding the intermission!), it was a well-paced and energetic performance organized by the Halleleujah Oratorio Society, in celebration of Rev Lee Chong Min’s 30 years of choral artistry. Contributing also to the success of the evening were four international soloists and the support from The Philharmonic Orchestra.

After a menacing prophecy by Elijah, the orchestra began the overture with as much intimidation, and a sense of imminent danger. However, they were almost completely drowned out when the choir entered with a thunderous roar of “Help, Lord! Wilt thou quite destroy us?” This choir was really loud!

Although comprising mostly of amateur singers individually, as a whole, the 240-strong choir was formidable. The man to credit for such a high standard of choral performance is Rev. Lee, who founded and trained most of the 7 choirs, some of which are based overseas.
Their diction was impeccable. Energetic and versatile, they could enunciate the fast “Will then the Lord, be no more, God in Zion” without getting tongue-tied. Not only was their diction commendable, their intonation was also pleasing. “For He shall give his angels charge” was so harmoniously pleasant, one could almost imagine the heavenly hosts singing together.

Soprano Cecilia Yap was off to a shaky start, but soon got in control, singing with abundant strength and bell-like clarity. “Hear ye, Israel” was achingly sweet, delivering a powerful, pleading performance with just the right amount of vibrato. Her duet with mezzo-soprano Carol Lin “Lord, bow thine ear” touched hearts as Lin’s mellow voice complemented Yap’s bright tone. Lin proved to be an intelligent performer, portraying the two different characters (Jezebel and the Angel) by varying her sweet tone and with theatrical flair.

Carol Lin in one of her sweeter moments
Tenor Solomon Chong was a let-down. He clearly had no projection power, and looked to be struggling with the higher notes and long phrases. He missed his chance to shine in “Then, then shall the righteous shine forth”, setting his own tempo rather than following the tempo that was set by the conductor. He stubbornly carried on at his chosen tempo, leaving the conductor and orchestra in a state of disarray as they tried to follow him. Such was his intonation, that made an otherwise beautiful quartet “O come ev’ry one that thirsteth” a displeasure to listen to.
Humphreys as a menacing Elijah

Baritone George Humphreys was undeniably the star of the evening. His projection and ability to hold long phrases was impressive. He portrayed the different emotions of Elijah very well with his facial expressions complementing his tone of voice, from the menacing warnings and mockery of the prophets of Baal to the tenderness when pleading and praying with God. His rendition of “It is enough” was a moment of striking intimacy, beautifully embroidered with obbligato parts from principal cellist Lin Juan. Other notable contributions from the orchestra include the unity of the brass section and the sensitive and shapely playing of timpanist Yeow Ching Shiong.

With the accompaniment by a fine orchestra, Rev. Lee managed the massive forces well to result in a moving and powerful performance of the colossal work.
September 3, 2010

A curious observation..

A curious observation..

See, how he sleepeth beneath my piano chair, even as I practice Beethoven’s tumultuous Tempest sonata..

It’s funny how my dogs always go near the piano when I start playing. They can be upstairs or outside, but upon hearing the piano, they just draw near to it and proceed to fall asleep. This doesn’t happen when I switch on the radio, or play the violin, cello or oboe though..

April 22, 2010

Chamber Music Festival (Day 2) – A Review


“So what are you here for?”, my favourite lecturer asked me as I occupied the seat next to her at the Lee Foundation Theatre in NAFA on Tuesday, 21st April.

“Why, the very same reason as you!”, was my reply.
The only thing that drew me to the concert was
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Double Mandolin Concerto, for 2 mandolins, strings & continuo in G major, RV 532,
of which I had to sit through a whole chamber-music concert of Haydn, Brahms, and Dvorak before they finally got to the Vivaldi.
Opening the concert was the lively first movement of Haydn’s String Quartet in D, Op 20 no. 4. Consisting of second- and third-years, the quartet worked well together to create the humourous contrasts so typical of the grammar and syntex of Papa Haydn. However, some parts of it sounded too “gummy” and “sticky”, with many of the notes held too long and heavy for my liking.
Following that was the dark and tumultous opening Allegro of Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 11. Like most of Brahm’s pieces, the piano part was chordal and probably had twice as many notes as that of the cello and clarinet score put together! It was therefore expected when the piano drowned the other two instruments when the trio played together. Fourth-year pianist Sun Miao later managed to tame the raging piano to let the cello and clarinet through. It was only then, that the beauty of Brahm’s orchestration contrasts began to show – the low rumbling of the piano against the singing sonorities of the cello and the youthfulness of the clarinet. Evident in the music was such marvellous individual playing from the three students, as well as some of the happiest integration of their skills, resulting in a poignant performance.
The Dvorak piano quintet was, really, more of a string quartet and a pianist at most parts and only a quintet in a few places. The fast and loud sections were treated as a competition of who could play the fastest and the loudest, without much regard for balance or togetherness. The piano part proved too difficult for first year student Berenice, who was obviously trying hard to play all the notes AND keep together with the rest of the quintet. There were fleeting moments of tenderness, but most of it was expressive lyricism turned into raging passion, which ended the movement with exuberance.
The first and last movement of The Seven Last Words of Christ, op. 51, originally for string quartet, was played by an amplified string quartet of 15 violins, 5 violas 1 cello, and 1 double bass. As seen from the orchestration, this made it rather top-heavy. For once, however, the violas could be heard! Due to a shortage of cellists in the Academy, the only second-year cello major Lee Min Jin worked through the entire concert tirelessly without rest.
And finally, it was on to the Vivaldi. Because of a scarcity of Mandolins in Singapore, the Ruan (a chinese mandolin) was used instead. This featured twins Clara and Sophy, both multiple diploma-holders for various chinese instruments on Gaoyin Zhongruans. Such an excellent performance it was, that one could almost imagine being transported back to the 1600s and watching the performance in a more intimate court/chamber setting.
The second movement was an extremely beautiful adagio, pure and innocent in its nature and simple. The twins played with much sensitivity, always listening out for each other’s lines and leading when their part called for it. The third movement was fast as usual, and although the twins were rushing, they rushed together, leaving the conductor and orchestra trying hard (and finally succeeding) to keep up with them.
Thus ended the 2-day chamber music festival at NAFA. Although the theatre was only 20% filled, it was nevertheless a good performance. Well done, all! (:

February 26, 2010

The Wonderful, Whimsical World of Wonderland… – An Advertisment

The Wonderful, Whimsical World of Wonderland… –  An Advertisment

“I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.”

“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowy, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”

– (Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, 58)

I’ve watched the original 1951 Disney cartoon over and over, and it never failed to tickle the senses with the delightful tunes, singing flowers, and the nonsensical situations that Alice was put into. I remember the white rabbit who was always running late, the mushroom pieces with the words “Eat Me” on them, the caterpillar who smoked, the Mad Hatter’s tea parties, the card soldiers chasing Alice, and my favourite of all, the ever-grinning Cheshire Cat.

This intellegent little puss is always up to mischief, and you never know whether to trust him or not because he sometimes helps Alice, but at other times gets her into a whole lot of trouble!

Conversations with it were entertaining to read, because it seemed as though it was always trying to be funny.

`Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.

`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

`–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.'”

– (Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, 58-59)

Sounds kind of like some students of mine.

I’m sure it’ll be interesting to have a cat like that. For one, its purple and pink (at least in the Disney 1951 movie). My favourite colours! Secondly, it’ll drive Freckles crazy. Imagine chasing a cat which grins at you and then suddenly disappears, leaving only the grin! Thirdly, I’ll bet it doesn’t shed fur!

Tim Burton collaborates with Disney to create the weird, whimsical world of Wonderland, where everything is surreal and every character, mad. With a stellar cast (Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, and Stephen Fry (who won awards for his voice on the Harry Potter audiobook series) as the voice of the Cheshire cat) and music by Danny Elfman, Burton’s friend and soundtrack composer for most of Burton’s films, this film promises to be an adventure not to be missed!

Catch Alice in Wonderland Movie starting from 4th March 2010 and join the official Facebook and Twitter page!

February 17, 2010


Sometimes I just wish I could do this. Don’t you all?

Decisions, decisions.
Music Therapy or Music History?
UK or USA?
Cello or Voice?
Oboe major or Piano major?
Wisdom teeth AND braces. Boo.
Not many interesting concerts to attend and review lately. Awaiting the Argentine Tango Orchestra concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 14th March. Should be interesting (:
Anyway, this is Plink Plonk Plunk’s 100th post. (: Thanks for all your support, wherever you all are!
February 10, 2010

DisconTENt – a review

DisconTENt – a review

A friend of mine once said, “The thing about these amateur same-instrument ensembles, especially guitar ensembles, is this – you can immediately pick out the few good players. Then all the others are simply there to fill the space.” And so I attended this concert, wanting to test the credibility of his statement.

disconTENt by Guitarissimo
Thursday, 4th February
SMU Arts and Cultural Centre. 2000Hrs.

DisconTENt was held as part of the ongoing SMU arts festival. This year marked the 10th anniversary of SMU, and the Arts Fest promised to be bigger and better than previous years’.

The programme lineup included popular pieces from the Western classical music repertory, Japanese Anime, movies and video games. Opening the concert was a solo piece One Summer’s Day by Joe Hisaishi, a notable Japanese composer. This was a case of an extremely poignant piece being only mediocre because the performer was nervous. She could have taken much more time to rubato and express the music. After her performance, the emcee announced that the young lady was “one of the more talented ones” in Guitarissimo. Oh dear, I thought, and contemplated leaving. Is this the best they could do?

Next was an easy duet arrangement of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. However, performing this only four months after learning the guitar from scratch, the duo did quite an impressive job of starting, ending, and keeping together throughout the piece, all the while listening to each other.

Canon in D was an extremely brave attempt at the rendition of a piece originally meant for three violins and a bass. The guitar quartet, if I may borrow a phrase from a dear friend, messed it up nicely. There were occasions where a guitarist got lost, only to find his/her way back into the music a few bars later. I guess that’s one of the advantages of playing a Canon, you just jump back in at the start of the bass motif and whatever you play will fit in. Many of the stray notes had made me wonder if they had transposed it without my noticing. Since when were there F-naturals or G-sharps in the music anyway?

Für Elise (mispronounced by the emcee and probably every other non-German speaker) was tastefully arranged, but alas, it was only the first half of the piece. Such a pity though, as it would have been interesting to see how the arpeggios and chords of the second half would be like. After all, the continual ostinato and the a minor arpeggios would have worked quite well on the guitar.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence was somewhat like Ravel’s Bolero, in the sense that the underlying chord progression repeated itself over and over, adding layers of sound or altering the tone each time. Despite hobbling onto stage with crutches, music director Antoni Lewa showed no sign of his injury when he was playing. He had such commanding stage presence, coupled with his beautiful tone, that the captured the ears and hearts of the entire audience. He breezed through the piece (with all the brilliant pyrotechnics of fingerpicking, harmonics and various strumming methods) visably nervous but not shaken. In fact, it was as though the nervousness gave his performance a certain edge, like an adrenaline rush, which made it all the more appealing.

Having already heard the best, the rest of the concert plodded along slowly and monotonously. Grieg’s Anitra’s Dance had a few harmonic errors, more lost musicians, and even more stray notes. He’s a Pirate! from Pirates of the Carribean was a disappointment. Due to the large ensemble and the docility of their plucking, it sounded much more of a leisurely waltz than an action-packed piece. Each of them could do with some rum or whiskey!

The concert came to a close with a duo playing two plesant little pieces. Although their performance was good, I couldn’t help but leave the auditorium after with a sense of disconTENtment – a restless longing for better music, and perhaps fried chicken (:

January 20, 2010

On Photographs, Photographers and Photography.

On Photographs, Photographers and Photography.

“Since meeting her, my own thinking about poetry has changed. Her photographs -how can I put it? – strip poetry bare. I mean, here we are, choosing our words, braiding strands to cut a figure. But with her photos it’s immediate, the embodiment. Out of thin air, out of light, in the gap between movements, she grabs things just like that. She gives physical presence to the depths of the human psyche. Do you know what I mean?”

– Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance

Some of you might have noticed the recent addition of the Photographers & Photography section in the column on the right. Why photography? Because, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

A photographer. A person who takes photographs using a camera. A species of artists.

I have, in recent years, the opportunity to be acquainted with several photographers and be drawn into the sublime art. I have been photographed in a studio with my family upon graduation, been a subject of an indoor photoshoot (thanks, HZ!!), travelled Europe with a photographer, tagged along to the cemetery with two photographers on their personal project (of course, slowing them down and asking them tons of questions), and composed music for a series of photographs.

Before this, I always thought that photographers had it easy. Press the shutter a couple of times and get paid big bucks for it. Now I know otherwise. They, like all other struggling artists, also suffer for the sake of their art. They walk long distances, carrying their (extremely heavy!!) equipment of lenses, camera(s) and a tripod, in search of the place and the frame for that photograph. They wait minutes, no, hours under the scorching sun for the correct lighting conditions. They brave storms and rain to get beautiful photographs.

And then they press the shutter.

All that walking, waiting, for that one second. To capture that elusive one moment in time. The frame, the gap in between movements, that presence. Kind of like us musicians. All those years of practicing for that one moment on stage or in the audition room. If you play a wrong note, you’re done for. If you miss the moment, it’s gone.

Somehow photographers always manage to bring out the interesting from the mundane. Its like a certain skill they possess, to see and capture everyday objects from a different angle, making it look totally different. Transformed.

However, as much as I am interested in photography, I don’t think I would ever get my own SLR or learn the tricks of the trade. At least not when I’m surrounded by so many of them. I’ll stick to my trusty digital camera and take photographs my way. Getting myself into photography is just opening a can of worms. Writer Murakami tells it as it is:

“Youwereplayingguitar,” said the Sheep Man with interest. “Welikemusictoo. Can’tplayaninstrumentthough.”

“Neither can I. Haven’t played in close to ten years.”


I didn’t want to dampen the Sheep Man’s spirits, so I played through the melody of Airmail Special, tacked on one chorus and an ad lib, then lost count of the bars and threw in the towel.

“You’regood,” said the Sheep Man in all seriousness.

“If you’re good. But if you want to get good, you have to train your ears. And when you’ve trained your ears, you get depressed at your own playing.”

-Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase

I should just stick to playing my music. Perhaps a bit of composition for photographs as well. That way I can dabble in the art without getting my hands too dirty (;

January 12, 2010

A little spring cleaning..

A little spring cleaning..

FASHIONABLYYYY LAAATTEEEEE! Pardon my tardiness, but this was certainly unintended. The last week of 2009 and the first of 2010 saw me busy co-working on a project for a competition, of which was due on the 8th of January. The final product would not be uploaded online unless we win the competiton, but do drop me an email if you’d like to view it (:

Looking back at 2009, I marvel at the Lord’s grace and providence. He had brought through everything that came flying my way, and somehow I got out of it unscathed. In 2009, I

1.Bought Murray the Marigaux
2. Wrote my first 6000-word research paper
3. Did a 45-minute solo oboe recital
4. Got my driving license (!!!!)
5. Graduated with a second upper honours degree
6. Went to Germany, France, Italy and Austria for the first time
7. Visited the graves of Bach in Leipzig, Bizet and Chopin in Paris, and Stravinsky in Venice.
8. Walked the streets that Vivaldi walked, visited the place that used to be his house, and the place he used to be buried
9. Played a baroque oboe
10. Volunteered voluntarily at a hospice for the first time

That’s quite a lot of things to be thankful for!

I can’t believe almost half of January’s gone. 2010 will indeed be an eventful year. Here are some of the more important events:

1. Removal of all four (!!!) wisdom teeth, and three others to put in braces
2. LTCL Piano diploma exam
3. Planning, writing about and performing in a Baroque concert which will take place next year
4. Re-learning the oboe after putting on braces, or learning the recorder for the period of time that I cannot play the oboe
5. Learning and recording a neo-Baroque recorder sonata by Michael Talbot

Sounds daunting, doesn’t it?

Knowing I have the support from loved ones, friends, readers worldwide and a dear lecturer,
I have the confidence to fight the good fight, and finish the race.

Bring it on, 2010!

After all, “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” -Psalm 118:6

December 23, 2009

the best present of all…

the best present of all…

A few friends had asked how I wanted to celebrate my birthday this year and what I wanted as a present. Having spent my twentyfirst birthday in the faraway land of Wales with only a couple of new found friends and housemates, I toyed with the idea of having a celebration, inviting friends and family. However, seeing that most of my close friends were overseas, I scrapped the idea.

I’m truly blessed to be born into a relatively well-off family, having my needs and (some) wants fulfilled. Therefore, I told myself that as a birthday present this year, I wanted to give back to others as I have freely received. Being a music student, what else could I do but share the joy of music with others? With Christmas around the corner as well, the idea of playing for hospices came to mind. Through this, a more regular platform for volunteering could be set up.

And then the perfect partner-in-crime came along. He could play the violin and piano, was interested in volunteering, and had the same initials as me (: Thus, JR² was born! Emails were sent out to hospices, and by the grace of God, we had three different places to play in on three different days. Selecting the repertoire proved to be a little bumpy, but we had that solved too. The only problem was that of the lack of time for rehearsal. We were both busy in our own ways, and could only rehearse on the day of the first gig! We somehow got through that.

The number of audience seemed to grow in the three days we played. On the first day we played in a corridor to a transient audience of nurses serving dinner and warded patients. On the second, we were “upgraded” to a living-room-style day care centre. The keyboard had no pedal (panic!!) and scores were flying all over the place. However, damage control was pretty good and all was at peace (: Today was the best, we played in a chapel filled with people in wheel-chairs! We even had to play some songs without scores or sight-read because of requests from the patients!

An 83-year-old lady happily sung along to our songs. Another lady (in a dialect that I could barely understand or decipher), wished us well. Many others clapped along. The best part about all this? Seeing the gratitude and the pure joy on the faces of the nurses and the patients we played for. Such a memorable experience, such a priceless birthday wish fulfilled!

Today is Christmas eve. Christmas, when God sent his son to live on this world with us, and to die for our sins some thirty years later. His love, the best present of all. Why not share a little love this Christmas to someone in need?

December 4, 2009

Sonetto 104 del Petrarca – Franz Liszt

Sonetto 104 del Petrarca – Franz Liszt

November brings with her many changes. The warmth of the sunshine has faded, leaving behind the rain. Sunny skies turn to grey. All around the drip drip drips of the rain falling outside envelops our house in gloom. And it’s not just the weather, it’s something else. Something’s changed, and the air of repressive silence hangs over our place. The neighbours keep to themselves, the birds hide away in their nests, and even the stray cats in the area have gone into their hiding.


November, a time of loss. Of dear ones departing this world and passing on, leaving behind a trail of grief and unanswered questions. Five years ago it was a close friend, and just when I thought I was beginning to let go and live, my dear Pepper passed away. Most might think, “ah, he’s just a dog”, but Pepper was always there for me in the 9 years of his life, knowing me more than anyone else. He always seemed to understand what I was telling him, and he would always respond in the way that would cheer me up.

Our eyelash treatment plan centers on Latisse from online pharmacy. I prescribe Latisse because it is the most efficacious, safe, and proven drug on the market

It is just so odd when someone close to you goes. Whether you stay at home and cry all day, run around town, wander aimlessly or even go back to practicing, you never feel like you are doing the right thing. Death is just plain weird. You can sit around and in your head imagine a world where a loved one doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t really hurt. It never does, until the reality of it is witnessed, and others around you confirm your worst fears. And then it sinks in. The pain that follows is odd, too. It hurts so badly to have lost that special someone, but at the same time, I held on to the pain not wanting it to end because I felt like it was all I had left.

Two years back I blogged about Liszt’s Liebestraume nr 3 and how it brought up many memories. I find that there is always something about Liszt and his music, that sneaks into my repertoire and leaves an extremely lasting and, i daresay, haunting impression on me. Just like the Liebestraume nr. 3, I associate this Sonnet with grief and loss, and the feeling of having loved and lost.

The text in Petrach’s Sonnet nr. 104 “Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra“ describes a soul whose state of mind is in simultaneous extremes “I fear, I hope, I burn, I freeze again; I fly to heaven, and lay on the ground, possess the whole world, yet hold nothing”.

WARFARE I cannot wage, yet know not peace;
I fear, I hope, I burn, I freeze again;
Mount to the skies, then bow to earth my face;
Grasp the whole world, yet nothing can obtain.
Pris’ner of one who deigns not to detain,
I am not made his own, nor giv’n release.
Love slays me not, nor yet will he unchain;
Nor life allot, nor stop my harm’s increase.

Sightless I see my fair; though mute, I mourn;
I scorn existence, yet I court its stay;
Detest myself, and for another burn;
By grief I’m nurtured; and, though tearful, gay;
Death I despise, and life alike I hate:
Such, lady, do you make my wretched state!


What beautiful paradoxes! This exquisitely lyrical composition is one of three piano settings of Petrach’s Sonnets.

Petrarch had honed a new poetic form of the sonnet. His father had been Dante’s friend, yet Petrarch avoided the subject of Dante. He was striking out in a new direction, setting the stage for Renaissance humanism. Yet his philosophy was powerfully grounded in St. Augustine – whose ideas shaped medieval theology. Perhaps that’s why the texts of Petrarch were so appealing to Liszt. Liszt’s life was full of contradictions as well, a simmering mixture of Mephistopheles and monk — sensual, generous, moralistic — all at once. The result of those contradictions was, well, contradicting music. Beautiful music which had sorrow, joy, life and death in it, all at once.
The Sonnet begins with a turbulent upward climb in accented chromatic statements until it reaches the peak of a chord, then it descends introspectively into a recitative-like statement of the main theme. The exquisite harmonies modulate between E major and G major, making use of the conventional tonality and juxtaposing in altered whole tone chords.

This recitative-like exposition is transformed into a passionate, romantic setting. New harmonies are introduced, the textures are fuller, and Liszt writes his molto appassionato with his characteristic flying embellishments, long sweeping bass line, and brilliantly flashing two-handed tremolo between high major thirds.

This impassioned section arrives at a sustained silence without any resolution. In a soft whisper, a tortured dissonance of a C minor diminished chord with a major seventh over a G pedal (!!) underscores the melody and resolves into a G major chord like a sigh. Liszt’s music surges forth even more passionately here, taking its cues from such lines as “Death I despise, and life alike I hate; Such, lady, do you make my wretched state!”. It becomes increasingly agitated, leading to progressively larger spontaneous flourishes that cascade downward. And then, silence.
The first part of the recitative-like theme is recapitulated, and this dissolves with a flowing, languorous coda. A C augmented chord breaks the peaceful mood just for a moment, as if to remind the listener that the balance of emotions and possibilities are still mixed, and it ends with a final E major resolution.

There, yet another piece on love, life and death. You’re still tormenting me, Liszt. It’s been five years. Let’s see how long this can last.


J: that day when you played Liebestraume nr 3 at my place, it touched me so deeply and left me on the brink of tears. It wasn’t the technical brilliance or the flamboyant passages, but the sheer simplicity and musicality of your playing, especially in the last two pages that left the profound impact on me. Its exactly like what Chopin said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Thank you for sharing your music.

December 2, 20090

Literature, or at least good literature, is science tempered with the blood of art. Like architecture or music.

-The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

November 26, 20090

Art is emotion & intuition; science is reason

Art is an aesthetic response, science seeks knowledge and understanding.

Art is idiosyncratic. Science is normative.

– words of wisdom from HZ.

Basically, art is, and science isn’t.

What then, is art? And how can one draw the line between art and trash?

November 26, 2009

a hundred and one.


I received the following email about two weeks ago:

Hi Nat,

This is Clara over at Wikio, the number 1 news aggregator and blog-indexing website in Europe, indexing nearly 200,000 English-language sources. I’m contacting you because Plink, Plonk, Plunk just entered at number 101 in our Classical Music rankings, which is one of the new categories created by Wikio for November.

If you want to add this badge, just follow this link if you’d prefer, I could just send you the code directly.

Don’t hesitate to get back to me if you have any questions.

Best regards,

Clara Chappaz
Wikio Community Executive US

I’m amused, and a dear lecturer said I should thank God for it. Okay, so I’m both thankful and amused.

101st place! My blog didn’t get listed (because only the first 100 did), but what happens in the following months waits to be seen.

And no, I’m not getting any income out of this 😉

October 19, 2009

A Winter’s Journey…

A Winter’s Journey…

This post is dedicated to Geok Choo, for without whom I wouldn’t have attended this concert; and Jeff, who would probably have liked to attend this concert if he was in Singapore.

“Ich werde euch einen Zyklus schauerlicher Lieder vorsingen. Ich bin begierig zu sehen, was ihr dazu sagt. Sie haben mich mehr angegriffen, als dies bei anderen der Fall war. Mir gefallen diese Lieder mehr als alle, und sie werden euch auch noch gefallen.”

-Franz Schubert

Winterreise – by Eng Meng Chia (baritone) and Shane Thio (piano)

13 October 2009, Tuesday, 8.01pm, Esplanade Recital Studio

Winterreise, like the Cello Concerto by Elgar or any major work of music, is not to be taken lightly. It is the type of work which can only be classified as either good or bad, with no such thing as a mediocre performance.

Last week’s performance was my first time watching it live, and it was one of the better performances of Winterreise (I’ve heard quite a number of them) that I’ve heard. With the first few bars of “Gute Nacht”, Eng had the audience gripped. He does not merely perform the songs. Instead of showing theatrically, he had us experience “was uns in inner tiefsten bewegt”. Emotions felt by the audience were of the starkest kind, so primitive and poignant. Thio was no less remarkable, with his caresses he brought out the piano part as though it was in itself another complementary voice. It is no wonder then, that Thio had won the accompanist award in the Tankard Lieder Competition while studying on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The duo complemented each other perfectly, as if bound together by a magical force. Thio could anticipate almost every nuance by Eng, and if he did not, his instincts were always spot-on.

The mood was set so well; even from the start Eng brought out all the contrasts in just the right tone. In “Gute Nacht”, for example, “Was soll ich länger weilen” was suitably loud, wheras “Will dich im Traum nicht stören” was so quietly sung that one felt the audience leaning forward. Overall, the interpretation was not that of the usual angry, stoical journey, but an elegaic, poetic, heartbreaking forlorn and deeply involving one. in “Der Lindenbaum”, the cajoling and tempting “komm her zu mir, Geselle, hier findest du deine Ruh!” and the later “du fändest Ruhe dort“was portrayed with such regret that the narrator longed so much to lose himself that you wanted to weep with anguish at the earlier decision of not choosing peace and comfort. His performance possessed a sense of “innigkeit” which informed every note, and sung and played with a rapture and sense of devotion which had me on the edge of my seat, and on the verge of tears throughout.

In such an outstanding performance, there were so many high points that I find it difficult to select a few. Even writing this almost a week later, I can still hear his clear voice and the heartfelt “Ihr lacht wohl über den Träumer, der Blumen im Winter sah?” and the reminiscing of “Ach, dass die Luft so ruhig!”. Winterreise was brought to a close with the hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Der Leiermann”. Here, Eng paced slowly and walked behind the piano, letting Thio take the spotlight as if he was the old man playing the barrel organ. Standing behind the piano but still facing the audience, Eng sang quietly, intoning his words so softly with an air of rapture. Although the piano is far more sophisticated than the primitive barrel organ, the simple tune that Schubert writes is effective in telling us the power of its music. The short, folk-like refrain remained long in the mind of the audience, and it is as though it was directionless but persistent, repeating itself over and over and over…

September 29, 2009

This pretty much sums up everything…


Thanks LY for sharing this on Facebook, I thought’d others might want to enjoy it so I posted it here too (:


Paul de Vergie

(Editor’s note: In response to many requests, we reprint this delightful article by the son of Jean de Vergie (for many years the second oboist of the Boston Symphony). It first appeared in the February 19, 1949 Saturday Evening Post. This reprint is with their permission. Even with the kind help of the Boston Symphony ‘s management, we have been unable to locate the long deceased Jean De Vergie’s family, but we are confident they will be gratifed to have yet another generation of oboists enjoy this article.)

Pity the woman who plays second fiddle to an oboe. For that temperamental instrument — which can’t stand heat, cold or jarring — may not drive her husband crazy but is almost certain to make a shambles of her home.

The next time you see a symphony orchestra at work, look twice at the three men, second row center, who are getting plaintive notes from what look like undernourished clarinets. The instruments are oboes, and you are looking on haunted, hagridden, bedeviled men. The public likes to believe that all oboe players are crazy; the whole violin section hates them bitterly; their wives and children rejoice when they are not home; and a snake charmer with a sulky cobra on his hands doesn’t have as much trouble as an oboe gives an oboist. Furthermore, these men are sore at themselves for taking up the oboe– the really good ones curse in their sleep when dreaming of the easy lives of other instrumentalists. But they can’t get angry, for if they do, they’ll sharp. Friend, have you got troubles? Then you’d enjoy knowing an oboist. Or an oboist’s family.

I know, because I am the son of one of the best oboists in the country. Last winter while out in the Rockies I traveled about six miles on skis every Tuesday night to a mountain inn to hear the weekly broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in which my father plays. My definitely battered appearance on the scene after bucking the mountain trails in the dark usually aroused some curiosity. When questioned, I would say I had come to hear my father play. “What does he play?” they asked with real interest. “Oboe,” I said. “Oh,” they said politely. As always, I drew inquiring and vaguely suspicious looks.

Tell people your father practices medicine, and they wonder where; say he practices law, and they wonder what kind; say he plays the oboe, and they just wonder. I’d like to testify, as an oboist’s son, that oboists are not necessarily crazy, but have every right to be. Furthermore, if it is true an oboist in Canada used to kick his wife out of bed and give her place to the oboe in cold weather, it is because oboes are even harder to keep in tune than the most temperamental of wives. The guy had a case, I mean. Lots of men have wives. Only a luckless few have oboes.

And a man with an oboe shouldn’t get married anyway; it’s a form of bigamy. If he is saddled with an oboe he’s got all the wife and child any man needs; and he doesn’t need a mother-in-law either. As a great conductor says, when trying to express the totally unsuitable, “It don’t go, my friend; it don’t go.” Take morning in our house. Father had a stormy evening battling that oboe, and now he wants to make amends by being extremely pleasant. Only at breakfast does he see his family assembled, and he regards us lovingly. He sips his coffee. We are a picture of perfect peace. Suddenly father lets out a roar of anguish, as if he had just found carbolic acid in the bottom of his cup. He leaps to his feet. “Who knocked my best reed on the floor?” he bleats. Now we are getting back to normal.

You see, the kitchen table was covered, when mother began preparing breakfast, with small screwdrivers, enough wicked little knives to perform all the surgery in the Mayo Clinic, and reeds. To an oboe player, his soul is not so important as his reed, nor does it give him so much trouble. He can never get it right. It starts out as a sturdy stalk of cane growing in the south of France and ends up as two fragile wisps, paper thin and about an inch long, bound tightly to a tiny copper tube ending in a cork tip. The secret of a successful reed lies in shaving it. This requires practice, a delicate sureness with the knife, and the patience of a saint. It also involves howls of exasperation, cursing, gnashing of teeth and agony of soul. Father is one of the few oboists with any hair left, but he started out with a luxuriant crop, and it is dwindling fast.

Just getting ready to play is a tough job in itself –a job any craftsman would watch with admiration. As for playing the darned thing, that is a remarkable physical feat approaching self-torture. Roughly, what you do is this: you hold your breath for a full half minute at a time, letting it escape very, very gently through this fragile mouthpiece, which looks like the big brother of a trout fly; meanwhile you run your fingers ragged performing lovely arpeggios, all staccato, probably, and written in six flats.

An oboe player’s home is full of little glasses of water in which reeds are soaking. You see, the poor beset man is trying to get one exactly soft enough for what he is sure they are going to play today. He is an expert at this–he has to be– and sure enough, he gets one into exactly the state that produces the round, soft, sweet tone he wants.

So what happens? They change the program on him, opening with music that requires a strong reed with a loud, brilliant tone, and he’s cooked. He’s always cooked. The reed that sounded so fine at home is sickly and weak in the concert hall or splits just when he needs it, or if none of this happens, then a key sticks and ruins a solo.

When the French National Orchestra was here recently, the same kind of accident befell the first oboe, but he was a fighter. Without losing a sixty-fourth note he snatched the instrument out of the hands of the astonished second oboe and played the solo perfectly. Without sharping, too, which was luck indeed, in his excited frame of mind. We try not to get father nervous for that very reason, and we have to try to keep him happy–or as happy as an oboe player ever can be– because a sad oboist plays flat. And if he’s flat, everybody’s flat. The orchestra, as you may know, tunes to the oboe. He is a frustrated perfectionist, and when he sounds his A, nothing under heaven will make him change it. The string players all hate his guts. They always want to sneak up a little sharper, for brilliance, and he never lets them. They never miss a chance at revenge. The great Jascha Heifetz paused during rehearsal to ask the oboe to sound another A. The A could hardly be heard. In a loud whisper, Heifetz asked the concertmaster, “Is your first oboe a Scot?”

A thousand devils of fear beset the oboist. Heat will crack his oboe from top to bottom; so will cold. Let it get damp and it may split; let it get a sudden jar and it may crack like a melon. On top of all this, he has to practice a great deal–the oboe is probably the most difficult of instruments and plays difficult music. In the Tomb of Couperin, by Maurice Ravel, the oboe solo is so tough that musicians in France have changed the name to the Tomb of the Oboist.

Furthermore, he knows every minute of his practicing that he has the unified hatred of the neighbors. It isn’t mere suspicion. Shortly after an oboe player moves anyplace he can expect to find the first letter signed, “Indignant Neighbor. ” If it is an apartment, he has to smuggle the oboe in as you would smuggle a pet tiger. What really burns him is the letters passed along by his landlord which refer to “that damned piccolo player. ” He has to practice his trade as if it were a mild vice of some kind.

Father has worked out a system you have to admit is fairness itself. He practices one half hour in one part of the house and then moves to another room, until he has made a complete circuit. On the hottest day he keeps the windows tightly closed, and he has figured out scientifically just how much each neighbor can take. If somebody on the west is a little more sensitive than the others, then he, or she, doesn’t get a full half hour. Our whole family keeps on the move, keeping one room ahead of father. Along the way he leaves a trail of reeds, screwdrivers, corks, and pieces of cane which no one dares to touch, much less move. One of the best cleaning women we lost swept an array of reeds into a desk drawer. Only by great self-control did father keep from strangling her. In turn, she said he was touched, and pointed out that it is hard to clean a house where every flat-topped piece of furniture is likely to have a glass of water with cane soaking in it. Father soaks many species of cane overnight, and some for a couple of days, before he makes reeds out of them. And there is no way in the world of telling what reed may be the good, the trouble- saving, the blessed one.

The cleaning woman had been suspicious of our family from the start; she may have thought we were involved in some form of voodoo. That’s because the house was full of turkey feathers. My father gets gloomy every Thanksgiving, full of fear that turkeys will be eaten into extinction. He has to have turkey feathers; they are as important to an oboist as wax to a skier. He uses them to clean the oboe and to get its innards dry. No other feather will do it. But he’s in good shape; he has a pupil whose mother runs a turkey farm. This pupil never arrives for a lesson without bringing another bundle. As a result, we have feathers enough to outfit a good-sized Indian tribe. It is a ten-year supply, my father believes happily. There are feathers in most of the bureau drawers; I find feathers mixed with my shirts and socks; mother finds feathers in the linen closet. Take a book from the bookcase and out spill more turkey feathers, and there are beautiful sprays of feathers in the flower vases. In moments of preoccupation mother has sometimes watered them.

Every time I hear my father take one of his oboes–every symphony oboist has several– and get sweet music out of it, instead of breaking it to pieces on the piano, my respect for his character increases. What a life! An oboist’s career is in two neat movements; he takes up the oboe, he spends the rest of his life regretting it. A fiddle player who had to raise his own cats to get a reliable E string wouldn’t have half the trouble an oboe player has on his quietest Monday.

Even in summer, when he doesn’t have to worry about cold weather, an oboist watches the thermometer as anxiously as if he had his life savings tied up in a bed of orchids. Let an oboe get chilled, and if it doesn’t crack it goes sour, and when warm again it sheds keys. Wherever we find an oboe in our house, there it stays. Nobody touches it; I just tiptoe around and make sure no smallest breeze is blowing on this mean-tempered chronic invalid. The other musicians think that story of the oboist who made his wife sleep on the floor in zero weather is funny. In our family we know how he felt. It was a choice between having trouble with his wife or trouble with his oboe, and he chose the lesser of two evils.

August 23, 2009

… the more we get together….

… the more we get together….

What happens when one puts seven oboes, a barock oboe, a cor anglais, a piano and eight oboists (and two Jack-Russell terriers as well, I must add) in the same place?

I’ll let the pictures do the talking (:

First there was Liangyou.

and nobody else. So he started giving Patches a massage,

which Patches thoroughly enjoyed.


Trio! More like,

The girlfriend, boyfriend, extra and the continuo.

Reeds, oboes, barock oboe, drinks.

Everyone had to present a piece each, and play the exposition section of the Mozart Concerto. 8 rounds of Mozart later, we did the oboe test. Luis played all the oboes one after the other, and we were supposed to guess which was which. The collection was made up of a Cocobolo Howarth, 3 Marigaux (My oboe Murray was one of them), a Rigoutat, a Frank Ludwig and a Dupin. Results were horribly unexpected. I guess that proves that the reed, player and the oboe all matter.

And then we found something else to do with the oboes: they made good props!


Fellowship of the Bells? Kai says that the barock oboe bell is Gandalf, the Ludwig Frank bell is the dwarf, and the two little bells are the hobbits! (:

Summer 2009 Collection

Playing with reedKnives..
*disclaimer: no human or dog was injured during the photoshoot*

A proper family photo (see if you can spot the Barock oboe, it blends in too well with the sofa!)

and finally, as LY says,

What’s a gathering without good food?

Dinner at Fengshan or Bedok 85 was simply the best. Cheap and really, really good!

This gathering rekindled my love for the oboe, and I’m sure the others were refreshed as well. Thanks guys, for such a lovely evening (:

p.s. I was just writing programmme notes for the upcoming nafa concert and i thought.. feels like one of those Schubertiards in classical days yea? We shld hv these more often. =D

August 11, 2009



I get miffed by people blasting their music out loud when on the bus. Especially when it’s stupid loud and brainless pop music. What’s the point of playing your music for everyone to hear? Think you’re being considerate by “sharing”?

I was sitting at the back of the bus, all the way to the left side. It wasn’t very crowded. A few stops later, up comes this guy, badly in need of a haircut and a shower, and he plonked himself on the seat directly in front of mine. He took out his phone and started playing songs from the speaker function. Loud. The Nat didn’t like being disturbed out of her rest. Feeling provoked, I took out my iPhone and chose the Vivaldi oboe concerti.

Yep, what better way to teach him a lesson? I played the Albrecht Mayer’s Vivaldi oboe concerti album aloud and held it in front of me, directly towards his ear (The bus wasn’t crowded, and I was sure that I wasn’t disturbing anyone else). I think he could tell there was something, and he turned around a few times. I pretended not to know anything. He increased his volume. And I upped mine too. I’m sure I succesfully irritated him. After all, he couldn’t ask me to soften it when he was guilty of it, could he? (:

This went on for the remaining few stops. As I was about to alight, I turned to him and said, “Excuse me, there’s an invention called earphones. Please be more considerate to others around you.” I smiled at him and alighted the bus.

Who knows, maybe he’ll start listening to classical music =D

July 7, 2009



I’m finally back from a month-long graduation trip to Europe that involved lots of concerts, an opera, composer’s graves, good food, and much needed rest. Pictures, stories and reviews coming up soon! 

Watch this space (:
May 15, 2009

Of Bruch and Bernstein…


This article was submitted in partial fulfillment of the Music Criticism component for my BA(Hons) degree course. I couldn’t post it until now because it had to be marked and graded first. Enjoy (:

“The orchestra plays mechanically, using mechanical energy; the conductor just moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music artistry.” – Leon Theremin, inventor of the theramin, one of the earliest electronic music instruments. Based on the above statement, how would the same orchestra perform when faced with two similar programmes, two talented fiddlers, and two very different conductors?

The orchestra in question was the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, whose ‘08-’09 season includes more Bernstein works than usual in celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday. Serenade after Plato’s Symposium and Candide Suite were performed on September 12 under the baton of Resident Conductor Lim Yau, and On The Town: Three dance Episodes on September 20 under the baton of Rossen Milanov.

Lim Yau, veteran conductor of the SSO, directed with flowery movements. Newcomer Milanov’s angular strokes of the baton were not as aesthetically pleasing, but were much more effective and easier for the orchestra to follow.

Huang Mengla’s technique was almost flawless, his weak link being his arrogance. He executed all virtuosic passages with ease and panache, playing with a maturity that belied his youthful looks. His playing style, which yielded a rich and sonorous tone from the violin, remained the same throughout the whole of the Serenade. This worked favourably in the slower movements. One could just imagine the young, charismatic Agathon giving his panegyric that embraces all aspects of love’s powers, or Socrates and his introspective musings in his description of his visit to the seer Diotima. However, in the faster movements he seemed to be suggesting, “I’m off, catch me if you can!” He picked any tempo and started off with it, not seeming to care about what the orchestra was playing and whether they could keep up with him. The orchestra was in frenzy. Lim Yau tried best as he could to control the orchestra, but the strings were in a mess, and the first violins were rushing.

In contrary, Arabella Steinbacher’s rendition of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy was outstanding. Since this work consists of Bruch’s adaptations of Scottish folk melodies divided into clear-cut movements, it offers a wide range of characters – from the deeply melancholic to the ethereal to the joyful and boisterous – giving the soloist a chance to demonstrate her capabilities on the violin. And demonstrate she did, along with an obviously deep understanding of the music. Following the orchestra’s introduction, she had the audience captivated with her sensitive introduction that was like a distant star shimmering in the night sky. Sensitivity was a key feature of her playing, and unlike Huang, she blended well with the orchestra rather than fought against them. She switched easily from virtuosic passages to long lyrical lines, and her technique certainly did not disappoint. Along with good technique, she had totally commanding stage presence.

Suite from Candide was arranged by Charlie Harmon, Bernstein’s personal assistant and music editor. This graceful and charming arrangement is peppered with influences of Strauss and Elgar, but its composition style is extremely unlike that of Bernstein. Lim Yau’s elaborated strokes suit the nature of the piece well, but the arrangement did not capture the essence of Bernstein’s writing, even when using his music. Milanov tried to make the three dances from On The Town as ‘American’ as he could, and the swing character he conjured sounded a little forced. Although he had full control of the orchestra, he did not manage to get the feel of the work. Maybe, just maybe if Milanov was American, everything would have sounded perfect.

April 16, 2009

On whistling waiters, cooking pasta and rossini…

On whistling waiters, cooking pasta and rossini…

Rossini’s thieving magpie overture is on the list of excerpts for my exam, and Murakami happens to write about it ever so often. He mentions it as perfect background music to cooking spaghetti in the Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and later on in the same book, writes about a waiter who whistles the tune perfectly while carrying a tray of alcohol into a room.

Now i can’t play the excerpt without thinking about the pasta-cooking bit. As hz puts it, cognitively brainwashed.

how how how?

April 6, 20090

“The radio was playing an unaccompanied violin sonata by Bach. The performance itself was excellent, but there was something annoying about it. I didn’t know whether this was the fault of the violinist or of my own present state of mind, but I turned off the music and went on cooking in silence.”

– Murakami, from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

March 1, 2009

Bernstein – Chichester Psalms (Part II)


Continuing from Part I, here’s the second movement of the Chichester Psalms.

The opening solo of Psalm 23 is one of the simplest and most beautiful melodies ever – compassionate and full of hope. Bernstein specifically wrote this part for a high male voice, whether boy alto or countertenor and never, never by a woman.

Again this can be divided into 2 sections, almost in ternary form.

Adonai ro-i, lo esar. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
Bin’ot deshe yarbitseini, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
Al mei m’nuot y’naaleini, He leadeth me beside the still waters,
Naf’shi y’shovev, He restoreth my soul
Yan’eini b’ma’aglei tsedek, He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness,
L’ma’an sh’mo. For His name’s sake

The movement opens with an arpeggiated chord by the harp consisting of open fifths (A and E), and a D# to create a feeling of apprehension. Then the solo sings, accompanied by simple chords on the harp. The picture of the boy David accompanying himself on a harp comes to mind. It is a simple, atonal but tuneful melody, singing of the Lord’s goodness and providence. There is a little break, and the first two lines end with the same arpeggiated chord that started the movement. The next part which follows is more contemplative, with descending arpeggiated notes plucked by the harp. This was stolen from the never-published musical, The Skin of our Teeth, with different words in the exact same tune (the song was about the coming of spring)! It was charming and poetic, with the same sense of hope as this poem. It is tonal now, and leads slowly but surely into the key of A major, where the violins enter playing the melody and the harp playing the bass, giving one the feeling of assurance and security.

Gam ki eilech Yea, though I walk
B’gei tsalmavet, Through the valley of the shadow of death
Lo ira ra, I will fear no evil
Ki Atah imadi. For Thou art with me.
Shiv’t’cha umishan’techa Thy rod and Thy staff
Hemah y’naamuni. They comfort me.

At this point a new figure emerges based on the primary melody, set between the Soprano1s and 2s. There is a soprano voice, and then a sort-of distant echo that starts one bar later. Over the top of it, the violins play a delicate, descant, ascending countermelody. The next part starts off in the same quasi-canonic quality earlier, and this time, right after the verses, the boy soloist enters, most miraculously and beautifully, singing “The Lord is my Shepherd”. The choir sings this in the same rustic simplicity as the boy soloist earlier, affirming the Lord as shepherd. And suddenly the tranquility is shattered by the rude interjection of the male choristers of Psalm 2:

Lamah rag’shu goyim Why do the nations rage,
Ul’umim yeh’gu rik? And the people imagine a vain thing?
Yit’yats’vu malchei erets, The kings of the earth set themselves,
V’roznim nos’du yaad And the rulers take counsel together
Al Adonai v’al m’shio. Against the Lord and against His anointed
N’natkah et mos’roteimo, Saying, let us break their bands asunder,
V’nashlichah mimenu avoteimo. And cast away their cords from us.
Yoshev bashamayim He that sitteth in the heavents
Yis’ak, Adonai Shall laugh, and the Lord
Yil’ag lamo! Shall have them in derision!

Percussive sounding Hebrew words, such epically and graphically written! It creates a divided sense of the splutterings, whisperings and mutterings; all the evil of our world and the craziness of it all. The theme worries away at the small handful of pitches, as if scratching away at a wound. Loud outbursts, protests and insistant shouts fill this movement, like war-music. Why do the nations rage so furiously together? It talks further about God sitting in the heavens laughing at these people, having them in derision. This is theatre at Bernstein’s best, soothing the savage beast of the men’s outcry. He brings in the women, with the original boy-solo melody above the men’s voices and the warming words of Psalm 23 once again:

Ta’aroch l’fanai shulchan Thou preparest a table before me
Neged tsor’rai In the presence of mine enemies,
Dishanta vashemen roshi Thou anoitest my head with oil,
Cosi r’vaya. My cup runneth over.

The men continue the splutter and jeering underneath the women’s voices, who spread their healing balm with words of comfort. At this point the boy-solo enters with the crux of the message:

Ach tov vaesed Surely goodness and mercy
Yird’funi kol y’mei ayai Shall follow me all the days of my life,
V’shav’ti b’veit Adonai And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
L’orech yamim. Forever.

And as if to put across the message that the world never shrugs off its troubles, the distant war-cry is heard by the trumpet and the xylophone ending the music with three final beats of the bass drum.

This post follows Paster Andrew Yeo’s sermon yesterday at Live! on how the world is dying, and how we can make a great change just by having the compassion to love what we see as the unlovable.

for Reuben.
let’s continue to see everything through God’s eyes, show the world what God’s love and compassion is.

February 16, 2009

Murray the Mariguax


Murray the Marigaux joins the family! He’s a (approximately) 4-year-old 2001, and has been extremely well taken care of by the previous owner. The sound is absolutely gorgeous and sweet, and he has the ability to play really softly and blend. (I find projection a problem sometimes though.) Will post more pictures of him soon. 

Been busy with school work and performances. My degree recital is coming up in May, and here’s the repertoire so far:
Vivaldi – Concerto in D minor, RV 454
Mozart – Concerto in C major, K314,
Britten – Six metamorphoses after Ovid
Too ambitious? Perhaps. All that plus 16 orchestral excerpts. oh noooooo. 
December 23, 2008

around and about, (Part II)

around and about, (Part II)

After Salisbury Cathedral that day we headed on to Bath. Saw this hotel on the way to the Roman Baths.

“And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” – Isa 111:6
So Lion and Lamb is right after all (:

The baths were beautiful.

There was a pretend “King” saying a prayer to Sulis Minerva, the lady goddess of the water. The water was bubbling and smoking not because of the heat but because of the minerals.

So the Romans believed that there was a special power in the water and that the goddess was magically making it bubble. They came to this place to take baths, and these were social events that would take up the whole day.

From one pool to the other the romans would go, to the sauna, then into rooms where they were scrubbed clean, then into cold water baths.

a picture of the cold water baths. Don’t know which stupid Singaporean was feeling rich.

That’s it for now, something’s wrong with the internet connection and pictures are not being uploaded. This trip’s been great so far, we’ve been to Stratford-upon-Avon and watched Romeo and Juliet by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Warwick Castle, Cambridge for punting and to see the colleges and see relatives, and London for Les Miserables in West End!! Much much more to come, when the internet is working again.

I’m not really looking forward to going back to the stressful humid life in Singapore. Bah.

December 17, 2008

around and about…

around and about…

Went to so many places today! We got up about 7 and had an early breakfast from about 8 to 8.30. Then we tried to set off but…
the car was covered in frost! So we spent about 10 minutes just trying to get the ice off the windscreen and the rear windscreen. Another 5 minutes was spent trying to warm up the car. And then we were on our way!

Our first stop was Stonehenge, an hour’s drive away from Bath. The Lord was good to us, and the weather was beautiful.

The scenery along the way, with its quaint little houses lining the streets and the lush, green fields. Reaching Stonehenge we see much more green space and
countless sheep dotting the greenery.

So expensive! All just to see a pile of stones. Bah.

Okay, fine. They were big. And towered above us. But still, it was a bit disappointing.

Here’s the view from another side of the Stonehenge.
Like the above picture says, no one knows its purpose. Apparently the flat stone in the middle is an altar. If the four corner stones (not in picture) were joined, they would form a square, with the altar in the middle. It even looked like that before:
Artist’s impression. But why the big circle? And the altar in the middle?

We left Stonehenge for Salisbury to see the Salisbury Cathedral, for which the Chichester Psalms were written for. (See here for my post on the Chichester Psalms) . It’s one of my most favourite choral works, and after seeing all the pictures of it and hearing the work a hundred times over, I simply had to visit the Salisbury Cathedral. Especially since it’s located so close to Stonehenge. Managed to persuade mum and brother to make the 30min drive there, and even searched for directions and led the way there.

The cathedral was nothing short of magnificent. Just standing before it made me feel so small.

The cathedral from where our car was parked, and the floor plan of the place.

Extremely stunning, which makes beautiful pictures too (:

On the exterior were many saints. I wonder why the one on the right is much whiter than the others around it..

High ceilings and a lot of space.

Beautiful, intricate stained glass on the walls, each with a story to tell.

The two heads behind are part of an art installation of Angel’s Heads, all hand-made using a hammer and nail. In front is a little overflowing pool, with inscriptions on the side. I like this photo, with my reflection and the reflection of the stained glass behind me.

The inscriptions in gold, and a cross below it. Really pretty. All four sides have different words on them.

Angels from above.

There are many little chapels,
from small ones,

to bigger ones.

These were on the walls. I think they were used for lights.

can’t quite remember what this brown place is, but I think they were pews. They had bibles and hymnals on the seats.

the sacred area.

a huge candle, can’t remember what it’s for (read the description)

The small pipe organ. I think there’s a larger one elsewhere, but I couldn’t find it.

A musician. Which explains why there are instruments and music scores on it. Composer, hymnal editor, pastor… of the Cathedral.

See the statue? It’s more white than the others.
And a final photo of the Salisbury Cathedral before leaving for Bath.

Went on to the Roman Baths, then Jane Austen’s house (only the shop, the museum was closed) and then finally a yummy dinner at Sally Lunn’s, the oldest house in Bath. Pictures and updates tomorrow! Early day tomorrow, we’re driving to Stratford-upon-Avon. Goodnight for now (:

December 15, 2008

Last few days of Cardiff… and a bit of Bristol.

Last few days of Cardiff… and a bit of Bristol.

Didn’t have much to do until the end of term. Practiced for 2 hours in college, met Nikki to play duets, and attended Alicia’s Harp Recital on thursday, and went for dinner with the whole harp department at this nice Italian place called Zizzi.

That’s Nikki and I. Nikki’s a really good oboist. Fantastic tone, very nice sound, and extremely in control of the oboe. She can play really softly and very loudly too. She’s from Nottingham. She asked me out to play duets with her (it was supposed to be a trio with Sam, but Sam was hungover from a party on wed night). We picked up scores from the library and sight-read through Beethoven’s variations, swapping parts after each variation. Good fun! We should do a concert like that some day, swapping instruments/parts for the variations. It’ll be so hilarious!
The harp recital was interesting, but so very long. Almost 2 hours without an intermission. Alicia played my favourite two of Granados’ Danzas Espanola, No. 2 (Oriental) and No. 5 (Andaluza). It was also appropriate because she’s half-spanish. I thought the standard of the harp players was high. The performances were good and they introduced their pieces in a very professional manner. One performer, let’s call her SulkyGirl, wasn’t good. She entered the stage with a sulky look on her face, even though her teacher was smiling encouragingly at her. She didn’t acknowledge the applause, but proceeded to just sit down and play. Her technique was good but her mood spoilt the whole atmosphere. It was as though she was playing in her own little world, and the audience weren’t invited. After her solo piece (J.S. Bach’s Tempo Di Bouree transcribed into an Etude for Harp), she introduced her next piece, saying “I’d very much like to welcome B, a flautist, to play the next piece with me.” After that she sulked and sat down again, proceeding to perform her next piece. Even during the music I could tell that she was still in her own little world, and that she didn’t want the flautist there with her, she didn’t enjoy her music, and she’d much rather be in the Carribean Islands than playing her music. There was a duet performance on the Triple Harp, the official instrument of Wales, and Baroque violin. I enjoyed every bit of that performance. The finale was interesting, it was a 7-harp ensemble playing the Chanson Boheme from Carmen.
Dinner at Zizzi started at about 10. That’s Alicia and her department head and I in the picture. The harp department is pretty cool. It’s 7 of them girls, and they organize dinners and get-togethers, where friends are invited too. Dinner was awesome (: Pasta with fresh prawns, and an Amaretti Cheesecake for dessert.

Introducing Sandy my fantastic oboe teacher. Had my last oboe lesson with Sandy on Friday. We did Britten’s Metamorphoses. It was so nice to have a change of teaching style and interpretation, and as Sandy says, the most beautiful thing about playing the Metamorphoses is that no two oboists play them the same. Have worked Pan and Arethusa out with Tim Watts (who happened to play second oboist to Sandy for years in the opera long time ago! They’re good friends), so Sandy and I worked through Narcissus and Niobe. He didn’t really like Phaeton so we didn’t do it. We also did the Gillet nr. 3, the forked-F etude, and fixed reeds. He profiled 3 in total for me, with his german profiler.

That’s Mike. I met him for coffee at Starbucks, and he was so looking forward to driving back for the Christmas holidays. Had such an enjoyable time talking to him over hot chocolate. He’s in third-year, same as Alicia.

Attended the College concert in St David’s Hall with Alicia after that. They did Vaughn Williams Sea Symphony, a very large-scale work for chorus and orchestra and two soloists. Job well done to all of them, especially since they only got the music 11 days before the concert and commenced rehearsals one week before the concert! 4 movements, 1-hour-long. No intermission. My attention wandered frequently. During the second movement or so, a man wearing a white coat and jeans walked (making quite a lot of noise), from behind to the choir gallery area. He proceeded to sit down next to the choir and got up promptly and disappeared behind the choir after a minute or so, all while the music was still going on. I thought it was strange. I didn’t think much of it, until after the concert when the choir members discovered that some of them had items stolen. That guy had gone backstage, stolen the choir members’ stuff, and ran away. He had lots of time to do it (about 3 movements long, and the 4th movement itself was about 20 min long!) and escape. Many had wallets, phones, passports, iPods stolen. The police couldn’t do much about it. My flatmate Sarah seemed the worst-hit. Her passport and wallet with new credit cards and phone were stolen. I do hope they catch that guy soon. Thank God that she’s back home, and with a new passport.

Said my goodbyes to friends whom I’ll either never see again or never see for a long long long time. The flat felt so empty. Royce went home early, and Grace left early on saturday.
Grace, my favourite flat-mate. She’s been so nice to me, baking brownies for my birthday, lending me her DVDs so I can pass time, and watching TV with me at nights.

Left for Bristol with Shing Min and Stephanie on Saturday for Edward’s concert. Tried to sight-see a bit, but Bristol was a brown, boring place. Came across this though:

John Wesley’s place, and the first ever Methodist church in the world! Everything else was quite boring. We expected to see a nice park, but all we had were grass patches, leading to an old, run-down miserable church. So we walked around the shops instead. Everywhere looked the same, comparing the shopping arcades to those in Cardiff. There were the usual brands of The Body Shop, H&M, and all the others.

One of the old, brown buildings.

Stephanie the jazz singer outside the Hippodrome.

big, BIG brown building.

Houses lined up nicely going up the street. The church where the concert was held is on the left of the picture, with the arch. Also brown.

But with stunning architecture, and elaborate detail in the walls.
A huge, grand church. And the concert was a sell-out!! I thought the first half was rather good. The Bristol Chamber Choir, the oldest chamber choir in Bristol, was conducted by Edward. They sang mostly Christmas-like songs in the first half, and the second half was Gabriel’s Trumpet, a Christmas fable composed by Edward. An interesting piece incorporating some bible stories, but very long.

The concert ended about 5, and we caught the train back to Cardiff. Had dinner, then it was a night of Uno in Shing Min’s flat, with Stephane, Michelle and Edward who came back later. Fun! Watched X-Factor, and I’m so glad Alexandra Burke won. JLS was just baaaaad. Horrible intonation, bad hand gestures, and worse singing.

Went back about 11 and then hit the sack. Mum came on Sunday, went to the station to pick them up. Headed to St Fagan’s after that with Mum, Matt and Alicia. The weather was beautiful. Today we went to the Bay, then did a bit of shopping in the city. I cooked them Carbonara after that! It was yummy (: Tomorrow we’re picking up the car, then driving to Bristol, and settling down in Bath for the day. Might not be able to blog for a while, but will do so when I can. Watch this space!

December 11, 2008

Of Wales, Whales, Cats and Pigs

Of Wales, Whales, Cats and Pigs

The poem in the boyfriend’s letter today was funny and touching!

Wales Whales

There was once a little girl
Who asked me this one day,
Are there whales in Wales
Are they called Whales or Wales?

To this young girl I replied
Wales and Whales are not the same
I know not if there are whales
In Wales at any day

The little girl smiles at me and went
There are whales; and there is Wales
There’s Wales Whales.

Amused I was
Laughable I thought
Wales’ Whales
Whales’ Wales
What was right or wrong?

She stayed with me
Much we talked
All on this phrase
Whales’ Wales or Wales’ Whales is there?

Now this little girl
Has left my side
Onto Wales has she gone
To see the truth of Wales and Whales and all that’s not

Now I lie in bed,
Heart longing, and waiting
For her return; For her story
On Whales and Wales

by Roo, in a letter dated 11 Dec 2008. (:


I saw this in the paper yesterday. Looks like Cat Burglar takes on its literal meaning! Read the whole story here.

Some cats have a nasty habit of bringing dead mice into the house but this naughty pet enjoys turning up with cuddly toys.

Cat burglar

The cat’s whiskers: Frankie with a collection of toys he has swiped from homes in the neighbourhood

Frankie has his owner in a flap – after bringing home 35 teddies and fluffy animals in the last year.

Julie Bishop reckons the two-year-old is swiping the toys from homes in the neighbourhood but she cannot think why or how he does it.


And apparently, sound therapy for pigs too?

STY-POD: Pigs are happier when they hear tunes in their pens. Piglets played 20 minutes of classical music a day ended up less stressed and better behaved, a study showed. Their narrow pen was also filled with soft straw, food and drink. Pigs using it showed improved signs of behaviour, said experts in the Netherlands. It is hoped the study could be used to improve animal welfare.

December 11, 2008

day 17…

day 17…

I dragged myself out of bed for a day trip to Birmingham! Caught the 0745Hrs National Express to Birmingham, and I got there about 1030. Yeo was at the station to pick me up, and after joining his housemates for breakfast at MacDonald’s, we hopped on a train to Bournville, where the Cadbury brothers made chocolate that surpassed all others of their time. They took the business from a household one to a shop, and then factory, and then they build a whole town for their workers which they named Bournville.

As soon as we exited the station, we could tell it was Cadburytown. All the lamposts were purple in colour! We walked a bit further down and we could literally follow our noses to the factory.
following the sign, we saw this at the entrance:

HUGE Creme Egg things! These were actually little buggy-like cars to travel around for staff, I think.

Inside, they showed us how the Chocolate receipe was stolen from the Aztecs, and fell into Spanish men’s hands. The secret of the receipe went to France and then to England.

Chocolate, like tea and coffee, became a wholesome substitute for alcohol, and it was fashionable to meet at Chocolate houses to discuss politics, play chess and of course, drink chocolate.

Here’s one of the high society things.

There’s the roof , and the little light inside. High-class stuff.

After that, we sat through a series of videos telling how chocolate was developed from drink to food, and how the receipe was improved. They used talking holograms to show us the journey.

It’s dark, but the three figures were moving and talking holograms against a backdrop of real stuff. Pretty cool huh?

From that, we entered into Cadabra! area, where we sat in a little car that brought us around the little chocolate beans. Kind of like “it’s a small world” Disneyland type of place.

Beanville! Sorry for the lousy picture, the cars were moving ;P

Beanville in winter! Beware of falling rocks chocs!

Wheeee! We’re Cadbury Cows! 😛

Beans fishing for….?

After this area we stepped into the chocolate-processing area, a no photography zone. We saw how the machines worked and how chocolate was made in different assortments and wrapped in foil.

Then it was off to the play area, an area where they demonstrate how chocolate is made.
First the chocolate has to be tempered. (The Well-Tempered Clavier Chocolate, anyone?)
This is done by spreading the liquid on the marble slab, spreading out, scraping it off, and spreading it again. This cools the chocolate and also makes it more viscous.

That’s Darell, trying to tamper with temper the chocolate.

Then, you could write whatever you want on the marble board!

This guy took the blame for all our scribblings. Mine’s the flower on the right. (: Each of them signed their names but I drew a flower.

After that was a chocolate-making station. Liquid chocolate came out from the tap, and after tempering, was spread into a mould.

Then it was left to harden, and after a while in the fridge,
Shells! So those Belgian Chocolate shells are all made like that. You’d get the outside, then fill inside with whatever filling (hazelnuts/strawberry creams) and then put the two ends of the shell together.

Chocolate Hearts made in the factory! Awww sweeet..

This kinda gives kids the wrong idea..

After all that it was off to the gift shop.

I thought this was cute!

5kg chocolate block!!

I think it cost over 40 dollars or something..

Went to the heritage trail after that.

Old Cadbury building, just like in the 50s.


Tired, we caught the train back to Birmingham central station. Walked through the streets, and then went to the Frankfurter Weihnachsmarkt. Wasn’t authentically German, but I had fun!
Witch’s hat! (:

And a shop selling nutcracker dolls! There were shops selling Marzipan, glass figurines, candies, Bier, Bratwursts, and… Buddhas?!

At the Bulls Ring shopping centre on the way back stands a huge bronze bull that looks like this.

Inside, however, there’s also a bull, the exact same size and make, that looks like this:

and it’s made of my favourite Jellybeans! along with the notice:

20,000 pounds for a jellybean bull! No thanks. ;P

My first time ever buying a box of Krispy Kreme! (: Got a box of doughnuts, and boarded the coach home. I reached Cardiff at about 2100, boarded the bus 23 and reached Severn Point by 2200. Home, sweet home!

December 10, 2008

day 14..

day 14..

Shall backtrack to continue my posting. Day 14 was filled with just as much activity and of course, walking. We took a walk to the Hilton Hotel bus stop, but this time strolling by Bute Park rather than the outside streets. It was a really chilly day, and the grass had a blanket of ice covering it!

Among the tall trees, I’ve found this little stubby tree to be very, very cute..

That was the walk through the Bute park, we left through the exit near the College, and caught the bus to the Bay. Didn’t take many photos of the bay, just this

… to show that snow melts when there’s sunshine. See how half of the ice on the wood melts and the other half stays frozen? Quite amusing.

And this..
.. of the icy pond, such that when we throw stones, the stones skip, bounce, hop… and land on top of the “water” which is ice. (:

Continuing, we had a yummy chicken lunch at Nando’s, ice cream at a creamery nearby, and then took the Baycar back to town where we managed to catch the 14.40 bus to St Fagan’s Museum of Welsh Life.

Among the first things we saw once we exited the museum shop to enter into the museum was

eine Braun Kuh. It was happily chewing and chewing grass. Is it a brown cow with white patches or a white cow with brown patches? (;

Walking on, we came to a red house that was a farm house.

We stepped inside. It was all dark and creepy. There were no windows, and a strong smell of smoke because

they used charcoal fire to heat up the place! And everything was so, so narrow. Oh, here’s proof that everything was made for people like me who are tall but not so very tall:

Look, I fit through the door perfectly without bumping my head! Ohh, and in case you’re wondering where that lovely black trench coat on me came from, it was a belated 21st present from my visiting friend (: It’s faux leather with fur inside. Really really gorgeous. But it makes me look stuffed up though =P

Brought Beep to see where his Welsh counterparts, then it was off to this white building, which was the St Teilo’s Church that existed since the 1700s.

restored and whitewashed, of course. In it there were many many murals which told Bible stories. Can you indentify them?

There’s Noah’s ark on the top, and the story of the cruxifiction below it.
and that’s Jesus getting the donkey, riding in on Passover, and then the Last Supper.
And here’s one more of all the saints. My friend said that it’s the easiest way to spread a religion, especially since “a picture paints a thousand words”. It therefore transcends language (:

O tree, how tall are you?

Nothing much else, except more farm houses, little pottery shops and lush greenery which would look good in real life but boring in pictures.

Headed back for the day. I was beginning to get an inflammation in my left lymph node, and both of us were tired from all that walking. We caught the 1705 bus back and by the time we walked back to Severn Point, it was about 1900. I can’t even remember if we had dinner, I think I cleaned up and went straight to bed.

December 9, 20080

oh, the weather outside is frightful
and there’s no fire that’s delightful
my body aches with pain,
let it rain, let it rain, let it rain…

Been down with a fever and flu, which is why I haven’t updated. I just awoke from a 23-hour sleep, feeling a little better than before. Will upload pictures when I’m better. If the weather permits, I’m off to Birmingham tomorrow for a day-trip, and then to Bristol on Saturday for Edward’s concert.

December 6, 2008

day 13..

day 13..

After booking the 7.45am National Express to Chepstow, we had to wake up at 6am to prepare, and leave the apartment at 7 for the 45min walk to the interchange. We had a simple breakfast of ham and croissants, and packed buns for our brunch. It was still dark outside, but the sky looked clear. It looked as though there was going to be sunny weather throughout the day.

The bus was empty, and so were the roads. We got to Chepstow at about 0835Hrs, and we realized that the first bus of the day to Tintern Abbey was at 1010Hrs. So walked around we did, taking a couple of photos and shopping a little.

We entered this opening in the above-mentioned wall. It was quite scenic, on one side was ruins,
and on the other side was the Chepstow Castle.
It was quite a steep slope behind me, so I was quite cautious about slipping and rolling down the slope.
This photo shows the irony of the vast amount of space behind (the bench and the castle in the background) while the two tiny critters rest on the bench. (: And yes, I love my sheep.

Beep’s birthday is also on the 4th of December, and he turned 7 two days ago! One of my best friends gave him to me, and he’s been going everywhere with me ever since.

There was an amusing sign on the way out of the port wall:
so if a pet doesn’t purr, does it not belong to Pam? Or does Pam only sell pets that purr?

Walking on into the city centre, there was a street market today which sold lots of art&craft. We also managed to find a Woolworth’s store, which I got this from for 2 pounds:
Cute? It’s a dog reindeer costume, and my Patches is going to be a reindeer this Christmas! There was a cat santa suit which I nearly bought for Pepper, but it was polyester and I was afraid that it’d be too warm for him. Such a pity that Woolworth’s is closing after Christmas, they’ve been around for so long and they sold nice stuff!

Got onto the 1010Hrs bus to Tintern Abbey. It was about 15 minutes away from Chepstow, and the weather there was very different! It was much colder, so cold that there was a thin layer of ice on the ground, making it very slippery. Even the grass has a white layer of ice on it.

The Tintern Abbey was mostly ruins of a monastry, of which it was so ruined that we could hardly tell one room from another and its functions without the guide-signs around. I took loads of photos, but I’ll just post one or two here.

A picture of the abbey from across the road

The highest arch up close
and my dear Beep with the ruins behind.

On the way towards the entrance we saw this:

Cool huh? Was brass really invented in UK?

On the way out, at the exit of the gift shop was this notice:

A promise auction! Some of the stuff auctioned were dog walking, yoga lessons, a plant of choice from a Nursery, and holidays! I’ve never seen stuff like that before.

We were just in time for the 1247 bus back to Chepstow. At Chepstow, we headed for the Castle first. It’s the one in the photo above.

Today was Medieval Day! The castle had a troupe who “lived” out Medieval life inside the castle. There were tents pitched just like in medieval times, a guy who was an archer and a bow-maker, a castle musician who played welsh tunes on the medieval flute, recorder and dulcimer, a leg of lamb roasting above a fire, court jesters, weapons, knights and all.

Roasted lamb leg! We stood near it for the heat from the fire, and smelt all smoky for a while after that =P

All the tents were colour-coded and of different sizes.

This man was a bow-maker. He actually made those bows. He carried an assortment of weapons on him, from knives in his boots, to scissors and other knives on his waist-belt. He was attempting to teach me how to hold a bow.

This was a quiet little corner that was a medieval kitchen. The hole with smoke coming out of it is actually a fire- oven that uses charcoal, and there was meat roasting inside when we went! The ladies cleared the table of all modern-day stuff just for me to take the photograph, and everything else went…
under the table! 😛

It was pretty cool, these people looked like they were all having fun, and were paid to do so! The weather was much better in summer, and they’d all be working on their bow-making or whatever in the sun. Because of the cold winter, they all stuck to walking around and talking instead.

We walked out of the “live exhibition” area, and went to explore the ruins of the castle.

Look, I fit into a crevice in the wall! (:

a VERY BIG tree.

This room was interesting. See the hole there? It’s actually a toilet, with the hole leading right below to the Lake Wye.

Can’t see the river clearly because of the light, but the hole goes straight down.

An attempt to look contemplative. With a huge red nose just like Rudolph the reindeer.

Remember this game we used to play, mum? (:

Visited the Chepstow Museum after that, as we had about 2 hours before the National Express took us back to Cardiff. The museum was full of things from the sixties, like a kitchen

with all the little labelled tins of bread, coffee, tea, sugar and spices on the top shelf, a stove on the right, and

a pretty English teacup on the table!

In the other parts of the museum was an exhibition of how the town developed, with

policemen uniforms (kuku, this one’s for you!)

Cigars, pipes, sugar-cutters, hair curling tongs, charcoal irons and many many other things.
There was also a bear cupboard for children to bring along a bear with them as they walked through the museum. Suce a cute cuddly idea!

We walked back out to the main street. Looks like the Medieval people were out for a walk to see modern-day Chepstow! They posed with bottles of ale and their weapons at the street market.

and that’s us, tired after 9 hours of walking, while waiting for the bus back to Cardiff. I’m exhausted, going to sleep for now. Cheers~

December 5, 2008

Beep finds a friend (:

Beep finds a friend (:

a friend visited from Birmingham, bringing a tiger that I gave him before he left. So Beep has a travel-buddy for this weekend (:

The beanies were from “Innocent” brand smoothies, and for every behatted bottle sold, 50pence will be donated to Age Concern, a fund that helps provide hot meals, blankets and heating advice for older people.

That’s all for today, tomorrow we’re going up to Chepstow and leaving at 7 in the morning. I’ll take loads of pictures and upload them!

Facebook seems to crash everytime I try to upload photographs, so I’ll do them back at home. Byeeee for now!

December 4, 2008



I’ve had a lovely day today (: It started off quite badly though, because I cut my thumb quite deeply when trying to cut a tomato for my croissant this morning. It bled so much I gave up making croissants and tried to have cereal instead. My milk had clotted! When I poured it onto the cereal it was sort of lumpy, like beancurd. Ewwww.. Had hot chocolate and an apple, and then read the boyfriend’s letter. It was more of a poem, really, but it was touching (:

Music therapy class was alright this morning, it was someone else’s twentyfirst too, and so when we were doing free improvisation the “happy birthday” theme kept popping up. Practiced a little, then went to town for a walk. Had to get new shoes, my shoe soles had completely worn out and water was getting into them! Today was a particularly rainy day, but it wasn’t very cold. Spent an hour trying to find myself shoes, and I finally settled on this pair:

By that time, it was already 1, and I rushed back to school for double-reed ensemble, buying a big mac along the way. Double-reed ensemble was so fun! There was a total of 2 oboes, one honorary oboe (which was a clarinet), 2 English Horns, and 2 Bassoons. And it was such fun, playing Tom Wood’s arrangements of Shrek, Lion King, Bohemian Rhapsody and other stuff. It was impressive how Tom and Harry decided to switch instruments (Harry played the bassoon and Tom, the English Horn) halfway. They both play the oboe, bassoon and english horn so well!

Went home to eat my soggy big mac and slept for an hour and a half, then it was off to meet Shing Min and her flatmates at 6 at College. Molly, Shell and I walked to school together, and while waiting for Shing Min, there were fireworks!! It was for some GB Rally thing that started today, but Molly said that the fireworks were in celebration of my birthday 😛

Was supposed to attend the Ponce recital of guitar and harpsichord, but I didn’t get tickets. Molly brought us to this lovely restaurant called ZeroDegrees, which was a microbrewery (kind of like Brewerkz). Their drinks were apparently good (we didn’t drink), and their pizzas were awesome! We had Peking-duck pizza (trust me, it was good but had a unique taste), and a Tiger-prawn garlic pizza. We headed off to Marks&Spencer’s after that, there was a 20% storewide discount only for today. Walked around a bit, and then headed home.

My flatmate Grace was so sweet, she baked me brownies, and stuck a huge “HAPPY BIRTHDAY from us xxx” on my door. I went over to Shing Min’s to play Uno with her flatmates. It sure was fun! Reached home slightly before 11, and spent the rest of the time watching Sex and the City while having Lemon Meringue Pie (bought from M&S) and hot chocolate with Grace.

Thanks everyone for the birthday wishes! I’m truly blessed to have you all, and you have touched me in ways more than you can imagine. I love you guys (:

December 3, 2008

day 11…


Didn’t do much yesterday, just watched Mike’s octet rehearsal and then practiced quite a lot. Had coffee with him at Starbucks, chatted a bit, then went back to practice more.

Today was much more eventful. Performance class from 9-11 this morning was more relevant, three oboists and a few bassoonists played. Gosh, they all played so well! Sarah Jenkins played from memory, and her rendition of the Haydn concerto was technically stunning but musically facile. It’s just the nature of the concerto to repeat itself over and over and over again.. The bassoon duet at the end of class was nice, the bassoonists could work together really well, and their tone blended perfectly too.

Did some practice from 11-12, then met Alicia for lunch. Alicia is a third-year student in RWC, and she’ll come over to Singapore to study in NAFA next July for an exchange (just like I did) before her academic year at RWC starts. She told me all about RWC, and I told her all about life in Singapore and college life at NAFA.

Attended the Woodwind Chamber lunchtime recital from 1-2. The Poulenc trio was not too bad, the flute trio was alright, and the octet played very well. Communication, coordination and intonation was good. I thought they did especially well in the last movement of the Mozart, the theme and variations.

Rushed to the improvisation lecture by Estonian guests from 2-2.30 (which was lousy and rubbish, the lecturer was plonking random notes on the piano and calling it improvisation; and he talked with his mouth closed), and then went for the semi-finals of the concerto competition. It lasted from 2.30 until 4-something. Some stunning performances, but none wow-ed all of us like the Elgar cello concerto played by Kyle Patterson. Technically proficient, and extremely musical, (but a little too fierce and arrogant at some places), his rendition of the Elgar was simply amazing. After he finished there was a pin-drop silence. Nobody stirred for a while. And then we all clapped loudly. With something that good, the rest after him would just be mediocre. Okay, maybe I’m biased. But his playing touched me so badly that tears were forming in my eyes.
3/4 of the audience left after the Elgar. I was one of them too, not only because I didn’t want to hear the rest, but because my phone kept going. For the first time in my life, my dear brother wished me happy birthday! (: Thanks, Matt. *hugs* I left early to call him and the family.

Called Reuben on the way home. The boyfriend of mine is so sneaky. He stuffed dated letters in my luggage just as I was leaving, and there were 4 of them altogether, dated 24th and 29th Nov, and 4th and 11th Dec. It sure was a pleasant surprise (: So tomorrow’s an open-letter day! I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas just to open presents.

Tomorrow’s going to be exciting! Music therapy lecture on pallitive care in the morning, practice, double reed ensemble, more practice, and a Ponce harpsichord and guitar recital at night! Then it’s either Uno with Shing Min and her flatmates, or off to the pub with my flatmates.

December 1, 2008