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***


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 – 92steelguts@gmail.com

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 http://style-revisited.com/

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 http://style-revisited.com/

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.