October 27, 2015

An interview with composer-conductor Eric Watson

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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…

..so 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

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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

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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

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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.

love

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

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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.
3x3
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 🙂