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.

June 4, 2015

Master Works by Addo Chamber Orchestra – a review


Master Works

Addo Chamber Orchestra, Clarence Tan, conductor; Christina Zhou, violin

SOTA Concert Hall

30 May 2015


Despite being the newest addition to the growing number of orchestras in Singapore, the Addo Chamber Orchestra has proven that new need not necessarily be a bad thing.


Opening the concert was Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, a philosophical work which the composer questions life and its meaning, made popular by its use in the film Thin Red Line. The soft yet unwavering strings played a wordless chorale onstage in the darkened concert hall, providing a background to the enigmatic “perennial question of existence” that was the 5note motif posed by trumpeter Erik Tan, who stood playing at the back of the concert hall. The winds – a pair of flutes, a clarinet, and an oboe – sat up in the gallery, attempting with much confidence but futility to “answer” the trumpeter’s repeated questioning.


The first and most popular of Bruch’s four violin concertos started off with an out-of-tune timpani roll, and rolled along lethargically. The orchestra always seemed to be a split second behind soloist Christina Zhou, although conductor Clarence Tan spared much effort to get the energy levels higher to no avail. The wind section of the orchestra was solid, showing how good they were as a section and soloists. They were sometimes too strong at parts, as the low strings were few in number; for a more balanced sound it would have been better if the lower string section was larger. In contrast, Zhou was vibrantly passionate but not overbearing, harnessing a warm and rich tone from the 1854 Gagliano violin. The adagio was intimate and heart-breaking, especially during the moments of interaction with the cellos. Zhou brought out the cantabile lines beautifully, soaring above the soulful accompaniment by the orchestra. However, just like the opening movement, the allegro energico third movement was neither energetic nor lively, partly due to the slower tempo selected. This turned out for good in the end, which afforded Zhou slightly more time when a peg from her violin came loose. She handled the situation expertly, not buckling under the pressure but tuned her violin quickly, entering at the next solo without missing a beat.


Perhaps it was an excellent idea to place the violas on the outer right side of the stage, opposite the first violins. What looked like a strange decision before only became clear when the interwoven tapestry of melodies could be heard clearly in the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. In much contrast to the orchestral accompaniment earlier, the orchestra delivered it excellently; their sound was focused and they played with precision and flawless intonation, from the winds’ opening unison passages in the first movement to the romping scherzo of the third movement and the finale. In the scherzo the orchestra took flight, playing with a fast tempo but in control, switching between the alternating faster and slower sections. They were even faster in the rustic finale, but with Tan’s clear strokes, the ACO brought out the essence of Beethoven’s compositional style: wit, form, economy and emotion. By the end of it all, the energy high and thrill one felt was not dissimilar to the feeling of having sat through a blockbuster action movie.


With this concert, and the Quinnuance concert a few evenings before it, Tan has carved for himself a niche where new music can coexist happily with the familiar and appeal to audiences from all walks of life.

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 TLGO.Singapore@gmail.com 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***