Amidst the waves of new ensembles interspersing with projects and performances by old stalwarts, much has been (and is to be) said of conventionally titled Western Classical music in Singapore.
(Source: Re:sound Collective’s facebook event page)
Re:SOUND – The Journey Begins!
Conductor: Jason Lai
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (1788)
Igor Stravinsky: Concerto in D for Strings (1946)
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485 (1816)
Writer, lecturer, critic, blogger, (and per my first point-of-acquaintance, programme-note veteran) Marc Rochester noted the questionable emphases on the provenance and timing, also outlining the (mis)fortunes of this endeavour and the unique local environment of finding a proverbial water source in this Dead Sea.
In the spirit of not saying the same thing twice (in the same manner), I hope my personal experiences will suffice. If (fallible) memory serves me well I last encountered the Mozart 40 in my secondary school days (a decade ago), the Stravinsky in concert in 2011, and the Schubert in the NUS medical library during closing time.
Re:SOUND gave no clue of Classicism’s lack of representation locally, nor did it proclaim it this concert’s core theme. Despite these, the presentation was clean, sweet, technically and dynamically sound and pleasing.
Their original authors being long-dead though, like memory and editing, the music has been much played around with, reconceptualised, and re-realised. Mozart’s 40th has been theorised to be part of a trilogy arc of his last symphonies – a tragic second-act passing-character possessing no (ostensible) substantial introduction nor grand finale. Finding safety in, well, safety, the ensemble established clear, middling tempi – yet occasional but inexplicable attempts to push the tempi (unevenly across instrumental sections and sometimes, individuals) resulted in more uneasiness than excitement. Dynamic and colouration were immediately apparent, but fell prey to two problems – a more self-contained than contextual treatment, and (mostly) a mighty reverberating acoustic that ruined most of the phrase ends with the extended aural decay. Enjoyable and near-spotless, but leaving this listener wanting.
In curious order, Stravinsky’s retort followed. Having struggled through the entire work (on the viola part, no more), there was never a doubt of its essential difficulty. re:Sound was clearly made of sterner stuff – rhythms were crisp, tempi stable and coherent. The soli presented dialogues convincingly, a dynamic that could mature as fine wine does, given time and care.
The wit and irony seemed to go over the heads of many in the hall, however – though the programme noted Stravinsky’s “neoclassical” and “serialism” period, I felt unconvinced by the perceived “lightness” and similar early criticism of this work. A thorough search on Wikipedia elucidated Stravinsky’s preceding period as one of great personal turmoil – losing his eldest daughter, wife, and mother (while himself being in hospital), then relocating to the USA and then getting married. This period saw the Symphony in C and the Elegy for solo viola, and it is beyond me that simple “light writing” would have illuminated the darkness of sardonic Fate within less than a decade of American life.
Granted the sheer basic demands of the work were titanic to begin with, and the youth of both the ensemble and it’s surrounding culture, it was an excellently maneuvered take (apart from the last chord) on a work that should be more-oft explored and studied hereabouts.
Master of Song Schubert’s most well-played work (homage?) rounded off the owl’s hour, showing that some stories are better sung than told. In 21st century (and pre-stickbanger) tradition the Collective fielded only sound-producing musicians. Either by design or coincidence, the lyricism and harmonic flow immediately gained presence as the repartee and ensemble gained attention by necessity. Minor lapses of indulgence and virtuosic celerity aside, it proved the most satisfying instalment of the night.
The niche being unfilled aside, the core purpose of new ensembles has always been a sticking point for me, even more so when ensembles immediately establish concert performance as an end-all like tutors/parents send students for board examinations because achievement trumps substance – (that laudable achievement trumps any other seems to be the flavour of the season).
I sincerely hope the evolution of a crack team of musicians with centuries of cumulative instrumental, musicological, compositional, ensemble and human understanding between them becomes less a pipe-dream and more a solid force in both the progression of music and national culture here.
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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-1878)
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880)
with The Philharmonic Orchestra
Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and sole Serenade for Strings were written in a narrow window in composer’s life. Amidst the brewing Russian classical music scene, set against a wider backdrop of nationalistic fervour and intellectual expansion in Europe, Tchaikovsky maintained an almost paradoxical balance of ostensibly strong classical form against autobiographical expression and artistic innovation. Basing entire movements around Russian folk-songs seemed second nature to this gifted eccentric, who seemed equally at home with ballet music.
Tchaikovsky’s personal life was fraught with turbulence and diametrical forces more human than divine – homosexuality, marriage, patronage, friendship, isolation, luxury, despication, adulation. His struggles also included musical ones between both the nationalistic Five and conservative Moscow faculty. In short, things came to a head in 1877, and the ensuing storm and tumultuous zeitgeist was neatly encapsulated in the 4th Symphony.
Like fresh wellsprings of water from a hitherto unspecified downpour came the Serenade – a mere and surprising three years had barely passed when Tchaikovsky, seemingly out of boredom, was struck with a good mind to sketch out a “symphony or string quartet”, finally deciding on a Serenade for a “[large] string orchestra”. While the 4th was written with the intention of tribute to his patron von Meck, the Serenade seemed an involuntary catharsis, an “impulse”, of which Tchaikovsky was terribly pleased and impassioned with its being penned into score.
As if by intervention more divine than human though, most public reception for the 4th was as odious as that for the Serenade was warm. In modern times too, contemporary artists have used these works in full-length animation, ballet choreography, with cameos in a track by Pink Floyd. Whilst the 4th was loosely inspired by Beethoven, and the Serenade an homage to Mozart, history would, ironically or reasonably judge Tchaikovsky and place him among the greats of music.
Here’s to a clean glass of water, and a very enjoyable 4th of June.
instead of writing drunk and carving rhymes out of thin frozen air
instead of trading good repartee whilst still waters run (o’er shoulder’d hair)
instead of laying leylines through the heart of verdant ancestry instead
of laying down, laying aside the laws o’ the land, now-ancient, long-decayed
instead of steady death of mind, lucidity and honest finds
instead of want of progress, prospectus, profitability
instead of naming naive idealists, escapists, communists – who are instead
real realists truer than those who say they see the world true – truth’s trust
instead of what man makes of her
instead of what man takes of her
instead of want of want, of what one wants what one wants of one – what does one want of one, instead?
instead of big words, harbing penultimate umbrage, fabricate,
instead of prosecution, seek peace now, browbeat discerningly
instead of belittling the small things that make us human again
instead of deification of glorified inconsequentials –
Instead I find solace in ash-free, salt-strewn, sea-wind breezes free –
surf the beauty thus detailed inside the wave of laced skirt,
take flight on chords of Gaea’s song, more ember-forged, raw aged-peat,
lust wandering for ubiquitously forbidden chemistry
set level against rapturous rhetoric for equality and
seeing all the loves that once were, never were, won’t mean to be,
remember October as what she wants, once, long ago had meant,
foretold by wise ones, cup twice drained, breast winter-filled, storm angry,
flowing as rivers through the canyons carved
so patiently by ink
made painstaking as
harvest from warm bosom of fresh Hermes’ wit,
repeat! – what would veracity be ceteris paribus,
what time, made in our image, how blind conscience’s tide has swept us thus.
I remember December – sombre slumber, amber thunder, limber Sarabande timbre
solemn, an omen, a moratorium, in memoriam, si vis pacem, para bellum,
silence, an abscence, scents of incense, pretense of license, reminiscence – but extravagance immense,
feminism, fanatical schism, imperial dogmatism, solipsism, prism metaphysical, procreationism, blind criticism
the mind rescinds, rewinds, per truisms unwind, resigns over procrastination, chance opportunism,
swim, pine, dance
spin, turn, remind, sigh, play, push, tinker, cheer, joy, sheer, fall and call,
storm and dry, cats and drang, hung out to dream, gone to the disco,
a dog’s deluge, death’s demise – December’s door
I had just barely gotten this earworm out of my head, only to be struck by a sudden realisation a week into the post-concert high of my first serious chamber performance in years – the hall was much bigger (and novel to myself) than I had cared to anticipate.
Backtracking 7(!) years, I was reminded of one of the few lines that struck me when the Australian(?) String Quartet took their precious time out to review and comment on my first NUSSO Miniatures performance, the first movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet. Basically, the 2nd violin and viola, being both “a good metre or so” behind the first and cello, had to play out that extra much.
This time round, the 4th violin and 1st viola (yours truly) had the unceremonious task of taking the sonic nadir, and in the (to me) strange and expansive setting we were fortunate enough to have our CFA coordinator listening and soundchecking. For that I am greatly thankful.
Given the circumstances, I would have been pleased simply by not screwing up. Given barely 10 minutes to warm up before the soundcheck proper, a little food time and warm-up time before backstage silence kicked in, and the rest was firmly in the hands of the fates and muses. The octet’s 1st and 4th were involved in the first (Mendelssohn) item of the night, and I was concerned about nerves and performance rhythm, even as they pulled off a muscular rendition of the allegro energico (e con fuoco) of the C minor Trio.
Ticking off seconds before going onstage, utterly convinced and unfazed given the setting and the preparation, I was dumbstruck by the sudden butterflies that materialised as the octet tuned up and agreed on an entirely fresh tempo.
Clutching the pencil-and-red-ink-riddled sheets, unnervingly flimsy to my cupped hand, bow threatening to slip out on the first bow, checking our tuning in a professional manner just to buy time; the upbreath took on a life of its own. Left hand refusing to shake in concert with the mind, dynamics breaking the dams of well-intentioned piani (heaven forbid pianissimi), rubati dictating the musicians rather than the other way around; it was later implied that the item was on the verge of breaking down.
Held together by sheer force of will, or perhaps by dumb luck, and sometimes riddled with things in a class of dark spots on the carpet and cobwebs in the closet, each passage’s completion bringing out the beginnings of comfort that continuity spared no time for appreciation, only the “bravo” from our mentor in the audience marked the first and only rest point the octet had in that harrowing quarter-hour or so.
Although I knew some very important people were in the audience (both to me and objectively), it later transpired that a certain writer had heard and was moved by our performance. That in itself would have made the hours of score study and group rehearsal worth it.
“Die Leute beklagen sich gewöhnlich, die Musik sei so vieldeutig; es sei so zweifelhaft, was sie sich dabei zu denken hätten, und die Worte verstände doch ein Jeder. Mir geht es aber gerade umgekehrt. Und nicht blos mit ganzen Reden, auch mit einzelnen Worten, auch die scheinen mir so vieldeutig, so unbestimmt, so mißverständlich im Vergleich zu einer rechten Musik, die einem die Seele erfüllt mit tausend besseren Dingen als Worten. Das, was mir eine Musik ausspricht, die ich liebe, sind mir nicht zuunbestimmte Gedanken, um sie in Worte zu fassen, sondern zu bestimmte.
People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefiniteto be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.”
Allow me, dear reader, to indulge in a section of self-reflection and wanton criticism of a very privileged group of humans, of which I (believe I do) have the luck to be part of. There are many who learn music as part of their parents’ will, as a secondary to the expanding middle class, as a consequence to school activities and other “requirements”, or for the most fortunate – out of their own impetus, resources allowing. There are a select few who stick to their guns, either by choice, circumstance, or force. Then amongst this miniscule sand-grain in a seaside of normal beach lies the awkward few who keep going despite the muscular waves of modern society, money, et cetera.
Of those that do not opt for a music-major first qualification, some do a “professional” or “useful” degree, (some then work to save cash), then embark on their second music degree afterwards. Out of these precious few crystals, one has taken the long, scenic, and scholarly path that has led him to pursuing a post-grad Doctorate at the University of Maryland.
Out of his busy schedule, Ryan Chow, a (literal) contemporary of mine (also, classmate for a few days), has taken the time to sow the soils of his homeground, performing a full-length recital centred on a theme worthy of its title: neo-baroque music, neoclassicism, retrospectivism.
IN RETROSPECT: THE ROAD TO NEOCLASSICISM
Pianoforte Ryan Chow
2 January 2016 . Sat
Esplanade Recital Studio
Bach-Busoni Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004
Edvard Grieg Holberg Suite, Op. 40
Alfred Roussel Trois Pieces Pour Piano, Op. 49
Dmitri Shostakovich Prelude & Fugue in A minor Op. 87 No. 2
Felix Mendelssohn Prelude & Fugue in E minor Op. 35 No. 1
Paul Hindemith Sonata No. 3 (1936)
Encore: Bach-Busoni Organ Toccata in C major BWV 564
Opening to a full-house with the towering Chaconne, a stalwart crafted from a repeating foundation of chords, Ryan set off detailing a wide range of characters in avenues not accessible by stringed instruments. Despite some runs being muddled by the acoustics of the hall and an occasional slip, the stylistic choices and soundscapes created more than justified the transcription, as though the pianoforte made the work its own.
The Holberg Suite – what can this string player of a writer say? It is traditionally a work first encountered in student ensemble days, its neo-classical/neo-baroque underpinnings blissfully ignored, and the Norwegian flavour buried in adolescent worries. Upon observing a live performance of the work in its entirety, this writer was finally enlightened and convinced of Grieg’s stature. This time, in its original form, the Praeludium and Rigaudon sparkled with arpeggiaic and contrapuntal efferversence.
A caveat about the sandwiched slow movements (and a plea towards instilling carefully considered rubato), namely the Sarabande and Aria – I would credit the string arrangement with injecting depth and heart into their lines, and thus strongly urge any keyboard player to thoroughly study the string version (and vice versa) and thus add much more gut to their ivories.
Out of the frying pan and into the proverbial fire, this writer exited his comfort zone only to be dispensed a torrent of apparent frivolity in Roussel’s Trois Pieces, at once fantastically enjoyable and beguilingly indecipherable. A mash of styles and its apparent (local) paucity of performances lent itself to its position as the first curtain closer for the night.
The intermission was barely time enough to catch one’s breath, as the second opener was a bold, and very (serious) Mendelssohnian Mendelssohn (think Violin Concerto, String Octet, Capriccio and Quartet op.44/2). Unsettling in its undercurrents, at once yearning and self-despising in its lines, it was more cause of introspection given the oft-used modern lens that images Mendelssohn commonly in frivolity and sardonically fleeting passions. Ostensibly inspired by Bach, it is poignant to note that its history of creation is in itself a meta-description of its neo-baroque origins, its different segments possibly being crafted across over a decade, yet sounding quintessentially Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and almost Jazz-like/20th-century in its exploratory moments. Acoustic- and pedal-problems aside, its heart-rending, timely ascension to E major might have near done justice to the sense of triumph such an undertaking truly was.
Juxtaposed against a juggernaut, Shostakovich’s ingeniuty afforded both performer and audience barely three minutes, but left all in serious shortage. This writer can only provide an online resource to one of the greatest Shostakovich performers as penance to you, dear reader.
Finally, bringing to full circle amidst the accented academic slant of the entire programme, Hindemith’s big and clear work was settled on as the fat lady of the night. Stately, robust, cheeky, overarching – Ryan ran the gauntlet and (later humbly declared) Hindemith gave him a good run for his money. This writer doesn’t have better ears, for better or worse, and it was wunderbar as far as he was concerned.
– and if taking it full circle from Baroque to 20th century wasn’t enough; and if this writer breaks more than one cardinal rule per sentence, Ryan brought on a Bach-Busoni finisher in C, originally written for the organ. This writer will avoid commenting on this instrument for fear of looking the fool, but a hearkening to the grand dame of the Western keyboard truly and inevitably nailed the endpoint home.
A poem a month I strive
to as little from others, derive –
to piece word by word
most not too absurd
a legible mess, contrive
Taut phrases, rather trite,
won’t live to see the light
like sweet silence, golden,
the author, emboldened,
thinks what we might – makes write.
In time this little game
for money, or for fame,
for followers rabid
or comments insipid
or fans that appear all the same.
It thus goes, any bloke,
in any tongue wrote or spoke,
might make up a scene
or maybe, a wannabe joke…
A poem a month I strive,
towards something realised, I drive –
a stanza right here,
a line for my dear,
in 2016, we arrive.
To force a child to sit and writ
Is in itself no easy feat
What one would yield a manuscript,
Drives foolish youths to lie, to cheat
Speak cacophony of uncouth –
Cross the line and you’re in shit
A sweet word here would calm and sooth
Admission of defeat, acquit
To err is man, forgive divine,
Good artists forge, great artists steal
Yet striking keys of ivory fine
Hails hammer fall with no appeal
The artisan in cloak of pure
Inside a product borne of swill –
This mind, no reason sound could cure,
perceived only others’ ills
As catching wild thoughts in a gale
Which leafs through indexes unseen
My choice it seems has faded pale
A generation washed and clean
Thirty days hath November
But not one dedicate to thus
My choice I’m scant to remember
A rabble’s head, a fulsome fuss
The winter in my bones has left
the ship has sailed for warmer shores
and scattered far aloft the foams
are stories dear and whispers soft
My city has a lot of different faces
but some say only two-strong seasons’ graces.
we paint glass, wood, steel, ebony facades
and toy so with quartets of visages
I remember why the august said so then
sweet August harks gruff spectres wreathed o’er snow
that what you see may not be what you get
and what you hear can further not be trusted
How do you ascertain whilst you entertain that
song makes you strong – when harmonies are built from the bass and
voices can only wax (not wane)!
How shall I explain how
(do frosts of ages past speak so of fossils?)
music lives within me
when times pass strained an aural invasion – the
March of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth fills rapt perception
or when quietest of days-filled moments brings
the sudden sunbreak of Nessun Dorma
when drizzily petrichor raindrops jazz beats high hat psst clomp
the mind thinks it knows more but it does not what comes of it is
improvisation~ unreachable consciously light-years
away, pretending, one can only hope of the quiet of 4′ 33”
or is that the soundtrack of most, not he [who] is
How do you prove the
eternal undying random jukebox exists now that a child’s
handheld device contains greater volumes oozing aural delights,
decadence – do we,
do I have something left to prove?