Category Archives: Music
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with Hans Graf and the SSO
7 Feb 2015 . Sat
Esplanade Concert Hall
(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
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
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
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.
Ones to Watch Series:
Armida Quartet and Lorenzo Soulès
28 Oct 2014 . Tue
Conservatory Concert Hall
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.
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.