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.

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