Monthly Archives: January 2016

A Little Night Magic /or/ A Midwinter’s Night Dream

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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.

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“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.”

Felix Mendelssohn (1842)

 

Hindsight is 20/20, Retrospection 5/7

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.
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I Remember 2015

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
of what-may-have-been,
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.