Category Archives: Concert Review

Hindsight and Foresight: A Double Reflection (I)


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.

 

14117882_293818024321764_6414351510082016392_n(Source: Re:sound Collective’s facebook event page)

Re:SOUND – The Journey Begins!

re:Sound Collective
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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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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Concert Review: Pianissimo, Quiescence, Requiem, Scherzo, Trio

Schubert’s B-Flat Piano Trio

Pianoforte       Lim Yan
Violin               Lee Shi Mei
Cello                Lin Juan

30 Sep 2015 . Sat
Esplanade Recital Studio

Beethoven       “Kakadu” Variations
Shostakovich    Piano Trio No. 2
Schubert’s        B-Flat Piano Trio

In a preview (if you will) of their 9 Oct performance as part of the inaugural 2015 Singapore International Festival of Music, this combination featuring local stalwarts and an expansive program was embraced by a conservative turnout on this Wednesday evening. Despite the modest, albeit loyal, audience, the trio shone in their debut(?) collaboration and crafted several magical moments within these two short hours.

First up would be the variations on a then-popular theme “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” (Eng: “I am Mr Cockatoo”). A fairly lightweight and now-forgotten tune, it was likely composed much earlier in Beethoven’s career then subsequently revised into a much more robust set. A critic noted it’s lack of unity, but what it lacks in cohesiveness it makes up in breadth of scope. From the gravity of the slow introduction, to the classical levity of the main body of variations, to the fugal retrospection of the later sections, the trio took all challenges in their stride, with only the slightest hint of a disagreement of momentum with the cello opting to push the pulse and the violin preferring giving the phrases full value of lyricism. Apart from a sprinkling of clearly tricky sections (that other ensembles also appear to have trouble with), there was little left wanting from the trio’s experienced prowess moving from molten sound to articulate aristocracy.

The anchor work of the evening would not be the titular one, intriguingly enough. Dedicated to his good friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich’s second attempt at the medium would a devastating portrait of both statistical and individual tragedy; in comparison, the first was a student work of romanticism and relative lyrical beauty. A haunting and deceptively (read: terrifyingly) difficult cello solo of harmonics set the opening otherworldly atmosphere, within which an endless, fruitless search ending in dissonant dead-ends seems to take place throughout the first movement. An exuberant, almost manic Scherzo, played to nail-biting intensity without any sacrifice in line-building, swung bipolar from consonance to dissonance in both major and minor modes. Following trudgingly, the semi-fugal Largo began to display the trio’s uncanny blended ensemble soundscape, leading attaca to the blazing finale reminiscent of the famous movement in his 8th string quartet.

As dessert to cleanse the palate of the gravitas, the Schubert was certainly the sunny finale of the evening to look forward to. Semi-repetitive but not yet to a fault, the sweet melodies were distributed simply (not finely woven) through the three musicians, and were executed to an exquisite precision of rhythm and musicianship. The coalescence of magic arrived in the Andante, when that legendary moment when that every ensemble seeks manifested, and the trio sounded as one organism, one pulse, one multi-threaded line. A dainty Scherzo-Trio and a devilishly-dotted Rondo later, the trio wrapped up this neat package of brilliance and dulcitude.

Looking forward to yet another successful concert on the 9th of October, and to many more successful and creative collaboration from this promising group in the future.

Additional review of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio #2 and Piano Quintet in G Minor

Beethoven’s Odds

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with Hans Graf and the SSO

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Hans Graf, conductor
Igor Yuzefovich, violin

7 Feb 2015 . Sat
Esplanade Concert Hall

BEETHOVEN                    Egmont Overture
SHOSTAKOVICH              Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77
BEETHOVEN                    Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92

 

(Preamble: Despite coming in almost one month late, I felt that this record would have been worth making. After all, it has been years since I collected an autograph at Esplanade.)

Opening with your Assistant Concertmaster/Concertmistress is, to say the least, and odd experience. Nevertheless, SSO took easily to the tragic gravitas of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. A counter-piece to the Eroica (3rd Symphony),  it was treated with great finesse and drama, and far tighter intensity of ensemble than the average subscription concert. Such was the raw worth of the incidental music, that bespoke the greater movement that its namesake began. The winds in particular etched out visions of great beauty, painting scenes of a time long past, of innocence long lost.

Stuck in the purgatory between popular and nouveau, Shostakovich’s violin concerto was probably likewise imprisoned in his unfathomable mind until after the passing of Stalin. Featuring themes from Shostakovich’s other (symphonic) works and the all-too-familiar Beethoven’s Fate theme from the 5th symphony, SSO’s manifestation also placed Yuzefovich in the solo role. Digressing, I first heard Yuzefovich (if memory serves me well) at SOTA in a chamber concert, and my first impression of him was one of clarity of sound and thought. On this night, there was a distinct sense of measuredness, with each articulation and phrase doled out with pointed determination. It may not have been as muscular and prideful as Oistrakh’s, or as clear and soulful as Hahn’s well-known renditions, but charting the flow of the piece would have been an exercise in understanding clinical precision. Most impressive was the ensemble in the devilish (and aptly named) Burlesque, with both soloist and orchestra drawing pulses together by sheer force of will. However, as all things are victim to heavenly capriciousness, Yuzefovich’s (E?) string broke at the very final buildup, mere measures from the double bar line. Shaking his head with a grin, and going through a series of swaps that left the second inner player with boss’ 3-stringed instrument, soloist and orchestra brought Shostakovich’s tour de force to a rousing finale.

After the heavy appetiser and main course, dessert was the quintessential parfait to the earlier steak-and-smoked-hams. Deviating from the (pardon the pun) fateful first half, Graf launched into the (then) revolutionary 7th symphony, reportedly based on purely rhythmical and abstract ideas. Reaching wild levels of popularity, the Seventh breaks several traditions in the same defiant manner that Beethoven broke the piano sonata, what with an extended slow introduction in the first movement, as well as the third movement that possibly marked the rise in popularity of the scherzo. Most popular was the second movement, which reportedly elicited demands for an encore from the a near-rabid Viennese audience. Unfortunately or otherwise, this audience had to be content with a single playing of the symphony.

In a (planned or otherwise) stroke of genius, the programming featured both musical landmarks as well as political timestamps of tragedies (Napoleon, Egmont, Stalin) as well as musical revolution and enlightenment (the aftermath of Napoleon’s invasion in what Wagner termed “the apotheosis of dance”). Conservatively speaking, the effect on this author would be the proverbial “blowing of one’s mind”. Perhaps I would be reading too much into this, but following the rough track of Beethoven’s 3rd, 5th, and 7th would be a simple logical extension. In another universe, one would have experienced martyrdom, liberation, and deification.

 

33:58 – everyone makes way for the winter storm

 

Other Reviews:
Review by Mervin Beng on ST
Review by SeenAndHeard

Brahms, Bravo, Bravi, *

Brahms: The Violin Sonatas
Lee Shi Mei and Lim Yan

3 Jan 2014 . Sat
Esplanade Recital Studio

Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108

Courtesy of the musicians and authors

Playing the devil’s advocate may not come easy, but is certainly amusing and somewhat exciting. Going off the beaten track pioneered by two timelier reviews, this one seeks to explore political incorrectness just a bit more and bring some balance to the Force discussions.

Building a recital programme around a textbook/classic recording structure is never easy, especially when lurking critics, and wannabes such as this writer, can easily tear the live versions apart by simple comparison. Choosing the landmark drei Sonaten by Brahms for a single sitting was thus, by logical extention, a display of sheer courage and bravado. Brahms would probably have worded the previous sentence differently.

Opening the night with the Second Sonata proved to be a prudent decision, with its warm tunes and lovely textures lending themselves to the elastic energies of the duo. Perhaps a combination of low ambient temperature and nerves had its (barely) audible effect in the first handful of phrase-endings, but as the piece developed the musicians rapidly assumed their artful weaving of harmonies and voices in a seamless rubato. This diehard romantic was in need of a little portamento from the violin, but the rendition was made no less by its honest, almost clean, approach. If anything, that would have reflected the few spots of (relative) calm and positive passion that Brahms may have felt and written, during such rare times in his emotionally tumultous life.

Entering the well-known First Sonata, and anchored by it’s “rain-song” motif, the duo came into their own, interplaying jagged-against-even rhythms, and building the complex lines that Brahms was known for inking. There were some balance issues when the violin exercised too much caution in the pizzicati and “accompaniment” passages against a generously-opened grand, but that would be nitpicking for the acoustic considerations in future venues and performances.

Although the temperature in the recital studio remained frigid, the musical spirit was still warming up, and reached its sweet spot in the Third. Supposedly shaped by symphonic influences and/or intentions, the whole palette of colours, atmosphere, and the kitchen sink was pulled out for this closer. In another display of bravery and brilliance, the duo took the deceptively simple slow movement attaca into the unsettling scherzo-romanze-intermezzo, and once again attaca into a fiery finale that left the audience gasping for more. A wonderful musical and physical feat.

As dessert, without much ado, the pithy Scherzo from the F-A-E was served with as much finesse as depth.

Being the wet blanket that I am, special criticism has been reserved in this paragraph for certain elements in the audience, who may be of want of deserving such a quality performance. Flopping seats, fidgety teenagers, falling objects – these periodically surfaced, spoiling at least the live experience and probably whatever (valuable) recording was being made. Smirks and condescending looks were also shared when members applauded “inappropriately” between movements, or when the only obvious slip was made on the violin on a semi-extension. Some self-relection would be well in order here.

Sober issues aside, when the duo finally appeared for their curtain calls, pianist Lim Yan announced yet another (impromptu) encore, to the perplexity of violinist Shi Mei. The opening refrain of the Second Sonata dissolved into a wizard improvisation of Happy Birthday, and the sporting violinist received both blessings and the concluding phrase with much grace and composure.

In summary: A little safe, but very solid. Looking forward to the near future of other works and composers, and hoping in the distance to hear this again another time, perhaps in another form, and perchance in another life.

*Birthday Improvisation

References:
Review by plinkplonkplunk
Review by PIANOMANIA

One for the Quintessential

Ones to Watch Series:
Armida Quartet and Lorenzo Soulès

28 Oct 2014 . Tue
Conservatory Concert Hall

Schumann: Waldszenen
Messiaen: Le merle bleu
Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 in E minor
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44

Martin Funda . Violin
Johanna Staemmler . Violin
Teresa Schwamm . Viola
Peter Phillip Staemmler . Cello
Lorenzo Soulès . Piano

 

(Preamble: A musical joke goes along these lines: the string quartet is made up of a good violinist, a bad violinist, an ex-violinist, and the only sane member of the team.)

In a heavily star- and award-studded compilation of Geneva International Competition Laureates, the featured string quartet promptly smashed the above scherzo into proverbial smithereens.

Whetting the palate with works from giants of  their respective era, Soulès’ disarmingly unimposing manner dissolved into a bold exploration of the era covering the indescribable agreeableness of Schumann to the discordantly feral (and honest) Messaien. The Schumann was one of the most demanding pieces I’ve heard, voicing wise, suite and all. Messaien, on the other hand, opened up a soundscape-sandbox filled with time and tone colours.  Despite some confusion regarding the page turner, it was definitely more hit than miss, and YST’s polished acoustics lent much weight to the expert touches of the pianist of the night.

Here, I would risk the audacity to insert a personal anecdote – we once had the honour of having a visiting quartet (I believe the Australian String Quartet) coach NUSSO for Miniatures (NUSSO’s chamber concert) in 2009. One quotable quote goes that “the 2nd violin and viola, sitting a metre or so further from the audience, have to play that much more to make up for it.”

The dear “inner strings” of Armida certainly had no qualms grabbing the attention of the audience, with the (once again) disarmingly waifish Schwamm launching into Smetana’s “viola concerto for quartet”. Not ones to shy away from conventionally “ugly” or “unromatic” sounds and tones, Armida brought growls, non-vib, flautando, and other possibly “shocking” sonic ideas into stark detail – yet in unison, the whole seemed sensible, even beautiful. In the age-old and neverending battle of how something “should sound” and how something “can sound”, Armida swiftly gained the upper hand on this field with a wholly interesting and complacency-battering rendition of the solid popular (and intensely personal) favourite that was Smetana’s First String Quartet.

Enter the full-cast act featuring a work from a time when the piano quintet was reaching (or at) its peak. Nothing much is left to be said from a crowd pleaser that stands out from many other chamber crowd pleasers, including no smaller names such as Dvořák, Brahms, Bartók, Resphigi and the likes. A delicious start, a balancing act in the “slow” movement that kept apparent calm as the open sea from afar, and a rousingly solid Romantic-formulaic finale.

 

Dessert was the Furiant romp from Dvořák’s 2nd Piano Quintet.

 

 

References:

Flying Inkpot’s mirror of Eventbrite’s blurb

Singapore’s very own Take Five used to run a series of piano quintet performances.

Also, many thanks to Youtube and the ever-ardent uploaders of yesteryears’ (and to-morrows’) music.

In and Over the Seas

The Philharmoic Choir & The Philharmonic Orchestra
26 Oct 2014 . Sun

17:00
Victoria Concert Hall

Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Debussy: Trois Chansons
Debussy: La Mer

Conductor . Lim Yau
Presenter . William Ledbetter


It may be presumptuous to write about a concert that the writer has played in, but hear me out:

In a spiritual sequel to Brahms Tonight, Debussy tonight was planned around an educational, engaging, and narrative opening act, with excerpts and explanations, and participation from both orchestra and choir (and narrator).

(I won’t delve into the more esoteric parts such as how the orchestra sounded or how the massive reverberations made it sound like we were playing/singing in a very friendly and ebullient tin-can.)

From performer’s point of view, sometimes it is difficult to imagine what the audience hears. In other words, what sounds like “we’ve played this so many times before” and “omg crap” onstage mostly sounds decent after maturing over several cubic metres of air-conditioned atmosphere. Having an educationally- or outreach-structured concert lends itself not just to the audience learning more about the music and the musicians – the breaks in between let the musicians learn more about each other and themselves.

I fondly remember the Russian choral piece that TPCC sang between the narration and the Brahms’ 1st performance years ago, as well as the audience’s “bravo” that brought tears to my eyes. That precious downtime, usually a nerve-wracking or concentration-wrecking one for those onstage, actually gives sufficient time.

The narration and downtime included some of the most valuable moments: taking apart and rebuilding the layers of -phony that Debussy wrote, taking apart the harmony, and taking a break whilst the choir took centre-stage (no pun intended). It’s nice to watch a performance and have the (hot)-light taken off you once in a while.

Emotions take time, just as music takes (and gives) time, and the perfect balance exists when enough time is given for emotions to run rich, and as rarely as the tides may sometimes wait for man, so does the Sea wait for thee.

See also non-biased reviews featured in/on:
The Flying Inkpot – by Soo Kian Hing
The Straits Times – by Mervin Beng

Silver and Snow (Part 2)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra: Russian Nights

In a series of fortunes, I ended up procuring a ticket to the SSO concert with returning conductor Rozhdestvensky, before which I would have been ambivalent to attend. Suffice to say I was a little more than pleasantly surprised by the experience.

In the last few instalments that I did attend, there has been a mix of glorious moments and unexpected (rather minor) disappointments: Glazunov’s brilliant Les Ruses d’amour which followed a struggling Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto, and Postinova’s somewhat violent treatment of Brahms’ 2nd Concerto which preceded a glowing 2nd Symphony by the same composer. This time round, it was evident that the Russian pieces fit the conductor and soloist couple to a T, and the gravity of the works had little effect on the energy and freshness that the orchestra brought to bear against the musical demands.

In a classic, complex Russian that this author does not fully comprehend, the theme of death is juxtaposed sharply against the flowing, living, and eventual ascension that death alone is unable to prevent.

Liadov’s Apocalypse – at first sight a vision breaking into tranquil glory, melts into a strange and unfamiliar disintegrating paradise. In between cacophonies of lustres and outbursts of unheard voices, lies a foreign land that is seldom heard (and challenging to digest) but simply heartfelt. Written shortly before his death, it seems the composer himself was expected to have produced more and “better”, but the sparseness and rarity of the music may be part of why it turned out so treasurable, and so ethereally satisfying. No more should be said without listening to it.

The setting up of the pianoforte gave some time for reflection, before Postinova came onstage with a rather fresh image (her husband appeared to be donning an Eastern-styled outfit). It became apparent upon her launching boldly into the sparkling opening that the music would be in her favour. There were some balance (and minor ensemble) issues resulting in the soloist being covered by the orchestra, impossible though it may seem. Some over-pedalling in the first movement seemed apparent from my vantage point, although the sound from the stalls was reportedly dry. These proved to be minor flaws as the orchestra unleashed romanticism that matched the strength of Postinova’s arduour, without due concern to her seven decades (and the conductor’s eight) on this planet.

After carrying a greater weight than the composers would suggest, the first half led to the clear heavyweight in Shostakovich – and his last symphony no less. As if a composer could not be further accomplished, Shostakovich the (mis)fortunate who lived through the War(s) era also went through the lyrical, celebratory, pained, stormy, frivolous, and finally ended here with the transcendent. Not immediately approachable as per the first half, the symphony appeared (as paraphrased from the programme notes) to be a selection of memories, a flashback of sorts by the sick and ailing Shostakovich. With “just 31 bars” of full tutti orchestra, and a 14-strong percussion section, the symphony was as eclectic as atmospheric, diasporic. Strains of restrospection were set against chamber textures of exquisite beauty. Despite the audiences (understandable) restlessness towards the third and fourth movements, there was much to be understood in that which was difficult to listen to and comprehend.

I will leave the enthusiasm of the reader unfulfilled with this abridged quote by Blokker on Shostakovich: “…just as a great poet can convey more in fifty words than a promising one in five hundred.” Perhaps that warrants another listening (and another playing) at some later point in this life.

Two swan-songs bracketing one composer’s first foray into piano concertos seems almost intentional. From his apparent onstage wit to the hideously demanding programming, Rozhdestvensky was obviously pleased by the form of the orchestra and the solo performances Yuzefovich and Ng Pei-Sian, amongst others that I am unable to put a name to the face. Belying his 7 years with SSO, friendship of over 33 years with Souptel, and 83 years of age, Rozhdestvensky brought great music and (most importantly) great joy and humour.

The timelessness of this concert experience may have just been encapsulated in Postinova’s encore – Liadov’s Music Box. A pianissimo piece (the composer’s supposed forte), Postinova’s tender treatment (most unexpected from her usual bravado) put the “tinkle” in the keys, and without the oft-used gimmicks of a perpetual ritenuto or shutting the piano lid at the end, it left the audience both satiated and wanting for more.

Bonus:

On Anatol Lyadov’s Musical Snuffbox, for piano (or orchestra), Op. 32
On Shostakovich’s musical styles and recommended recordings illustrating these

Silver and Snow (Part 1)

Preamble

If I were to tell my busy self on Friday to attend two concerts on Saturday, he might has written it off as weekend madness. By sheer chance and magnanimity, the scenes aligned just sufficiently for this character to pass through, unimpeded.

Picture is unrelated

NUS Symphony Orchestra: Screen Gems

Whilst in keeping the tradition of annual September public outreach concerts, NUSSO tread new ground at the popular and accessible Vivocity Amphitheatre. A fresh change from the NLB open Plaza and scheduled safely away from the F1 races, its proximity to the NUS campus and general weekend crowds served its objective well.

Opening with one of Strauss Jr.’s crowd pleasers, NUSSO launched with wholehearted gusto into Die Fledermaus Overture. Despite sections of killer passages, the musicians went from mock stateliness to beer-drinking frivolity in a manner belying the amateur nature of the ensemble. What was lacking in momentum and articulation was made up with strength in ensemble and melody.

The second movement of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony was a reprieve from the grandiosity of the first number, but no less jocund. Sets of variations riddled with dynamic surprises as per its namesake, a little humour and finesse was lost in the presentation and the sound system. Largely though, it served its purpose as a sweet intermezzo before the heavyweights arrived.

A personal favourite, the Waltz of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet (suite) was paired with the far more famous opening movement, the Scene. Here again, parts were less is more were once again given the generous treatment (tremolo parts will know who you are) as the solo lines were sometimes covered up and the balance upset. The Waltz played much better to the youthful exuberance of the orchestra, and despite (once again) the flows of momentum the audience was noticeably pleased by the hearty and heartfelt romanticism.

Bizet’s Carmen Suite – a collection of dances and scenes from an opera. Without going into more detail regarding the artistic and cultural ties between Russia and France, the musical content of Bizet’s alone covers a wide range of moods, colours and both soloistic and concerted forces. A crowd-pleaser, problems in the balance and details interfered with the orchestration and the portrayal of what is essentially a tragedy of exciting, diverse, and ego-inflated characters. Nevertheless, in the setting of a lossy outdoor concert, the energy and apt tackling of both solo and tutti passages roused the crowd to cheers (some individualised) and applause.

The descent of the tropical sun lent its molten setting to Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and the concluding Pirates of the Carribean  suite. Both vastly popular, the scene from A Midsummer’s Night dream drew wry smiles from the audience while the Pirates’ upbeat rhythms seemed to revitalise the orchestra, leading to a energetic finale.

A quick, almost improvisatory Can-Can / Galop Infernal wrapped up the evening.

As a self-confessed sucker for irony, given the amount present in the musical numbers (even the waltz is interrupted by the hero’s mother ordering him to get married), it was a little disappointing missing out on bits of quietness and a lack of energy in the middle of the programme, especially since it would have been apparent even given the outdoors setting and sound system. However, despite the heat, the challenging lines and the several solos, as well as the clearly-visible and overflowing audience, NUSSO pulled off a thoroughly enjoyable and successful concert.

Credit Roll:

Special mention to the organising team, Exco, CFA Staff, Mr Lim, Mr Foo and all the tutors for the back- and front-end work that made the concert both a logistical and musical success. Thanks should also go to Exxon-Mobil, Vivocity, NUS CFA and all other parties for the provision of the practice and concert venues, and unseen contributions in one way or another or many.

Further special mention to the percussion section for the quality of pulse and ensemble.

Also, farthest special mention to the violists for no particular reason.

Buenas Noches

Music of the Night

RAVEL – Introduction and Allegro
DVOŘÁK – Serenade in E major, Op. 22
FALLA – Nights in the Gardens of Spain
MOZART – Symphony No. 35 in D major, K.385 ‘Haffner

SSO
Okko Kamu conductor
Thomas Hecht piano
Gulnara Mashurova harp

(Concert information courtesy of SSO)

In a strange series of events, I exchanged tickets of another show (which had its programme changed) for this concert, and very fortunately, it proved to be a magical night.

Opening the scene with (one of) Ravel’s landmark chamber piece(s), the Introduction and Allegro shimmered and shone. A passionate cellist and finely emotional (guest) first violinist played the foil to a slightly aloof but supremely refined Mashurova (harpist), and a pair of woodwinds (flute & clarinet) and yet another violinist rounded out the intimately blended septet.

The star of the night, however, was undoubtedly the evergreen Serenade, with a fresh breath of life instilled in pleasantly surprising fashion by the trademark ebb-and-swell of Kamu’s and balance of Lu Wei’s presence. Apart from a slightly flat note from the lower strings at the first few chords,  the remarkably responsive and moderately echo-y acoustic synergised with the gusto and sensitivity of the orchestra turned an almost over-heard piece into a melodious journey spanning vast tracts of emotional ground.

It was somewhat curious then that the curtain closer was a Mozart symphony. A deceptively cool smoke-against-the-fiery-background Falla preceded the symphony, with a matchingly suave Hecht setting the atmosphere and playing the sparks to the smoldering embers of the tutti, igniting them ever so often and unexpectedly.

The finale of the “Haffner” carried the hangover of later styles from the other works in the programme, yet maintained a cleanliness and a notable degree of cohesion that makes good Mozart great, jokes about cheesiness and immaturity aside. Despite not being the finale that a Dvorak fanboy like myself would have liked, the symphony ended the concert like a fresh white does a memorable dinner.

 

Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain Part 1 and Part 2 – embedding disabled by request

Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, 1923 Recording

Dvorak’s “American” Quartet (recorded by Prazak Quartet)