Blog Archives

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

Trio: Encore

30 March 2012

Russian Extravaganza
Alexander Glazunov – Les Ruses d’amour (Ballet)
Dmitri Shostakovich – Cello Concert No.1 in E-flat major Op.107
Sergei Prokofiev – Scythian Suite

Dirigent: Gennady Rozhdestvensky
Soloist: Jan Vogler

So this author went for his 2nd dose of Rozhdestvensky + SSO virtually on impulse, deciding immediately after watching the first one. Due to a very interesting “feature”, Sistic disallowed booking of 2 adjacent seats when there were 3 available, and thus we ended up a AA 92 – the right-front-most region of Circle 2. Whatever concerns over neck craning and sound imbalance were dispelled when we realised that it was prime position, providing a view from right above Rozhdestvensky.

 

Alexander Glazunov – Les Ruses d’amour (Ballet)

In an approximate inverse of the Overture-Concerto-Symphony template, the ballet took off with little pomp. Its length did little to the rich texture and range of expression, such that this author, who was certain of falling asleep somewhere in the middle of the concert, had little to worry about in that aspect. The SSO sounded that much more organic, and, driven by the slick strokes of the conductor, maintained an airtight ensemble that did nothing to downplay the incredible tone palette displayed on this night. The Farandole helped to liven up the mood just in time for the aptly named Grande Valse, “in which Damis expresses his true love for Isabella whatever her station in life” (in Marc Rochester’s Words). After that “dramatic highlight” came the musical and emotional climax – the violin and cello duet, featuring Ng Pei Sian and Alexander Souptel in an intense dialogue worthy of new lovers in their honeymoon phase. A rousing but apt finale rounded up the 50 minute musical high tea buffet.

On a lighter note, in the middle of one of the movements, perhaps the Farandole, Rozhdestvensky’s baton flew (rather gracefully might I add) out of his grasp, to which he did nothing more than continue for two beats without a baton, and in one smooth motion worthy of a master-level sleight-of-hand, produced another (shorter) baton and proceeded with the upbeat to the next measure.

It seems that “Love’s Trickery” did not fail to please both musically and magically.

Looks like no one decided to upload even an excerpt of this rather brilliant specimen of a ballet, so here’s a filler depicting my thoughts on that unfortunate omission.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich – Cello Concert No.1 in E-flat major Op.107

The cello concerto brought mixed reactions, especially among the cellists. I, for one, had little if no conception of it. Vogler gave a direct, almost no-frills interpretation that was characterised by short choppy strokes on the repeated notes. The slow movement was much more lush and heartfelt, and, allowing me wide berth for assumptions, given the nature of his instrument the tone suited it readily. 7 minutes of a distilled, extended cadenza followed, and delivered with nail-biting intensity. A combination of the sheer technical demands, the nature of his instrument, and possibly the weight of Rostropovich’s legacy (the piece was dedicated to him) caused a few slips, and noticeable disappointment towards the end of the titanic cadenza. The final movement went ahead with full velocity, but robbed of some momentum over the previous one, and despite the solo instrument being nearly drowned out towards the end, the giant of entire cello repertoire was brought to a relentless finish.

Vogler gave an encore of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G major.


“Shostakovich should have marked the score ‘for Slava (Rostropovich) only.” – Citation needed.

Vogler with SSO:

P.S. Just for fun – can’t believe this is available on youtube:

 

Sergei Prokofiev – Scythian Suite

Originally designed to recreate (or better) the riot caused by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite was a veritable 20 minute long roller coaster in a concert hall (or as some would put it, canned whoopass).  The orchestra enters in a fast and furious explosion – at this time the author is has just listened to Respighi’s Pines of Rome and is currently listening to this piece, and notices with some irony how similar both works’ opening salvoes are. The wonderful cacophony (or, technically, dissonances) and dialogue lucidly materialised, with Rozhdestvensky giving his trademark hand signals as though he was part of the main orchestra. After an eerie third movement, the raucous finale offered only a brief respite, before mounting into an epic anticlimax consisting of an over-laboured final “chord”.


 

Addendum: This concert may be Alexander Souptel’s last as concertmaster of SSO, if his contract is not renewed.

Trio: Overture

22 March

Brahms’ Seconds
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op.83
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73

Dirigent: Gennady Rozhdestvensky
Soloist:  Viktoria Postnikova

What do you get when you put two of Brahms’ cheerier pieces, SSO, an 81-year old conductor (who used to conduct with Rostropovich as soloist) and his 69-year old  wife (aka force of nature) at the pianoforte? A veritable combination that transformed the orchestra into an authority of sound, as of yet unmatched thus far into the year (as far as this author has experienced).

Without so much as an overture, the soloist strode out of the wings without much affectation, with her (dare I say) slightly less imposing counterpart. Her presence and appearance belied her age, and I was fooled again by her stiff-looking shoulders (re: the videos below) which hardly affected the sensitivity of her playing. I wasn’t quite sure if she made some mistakes during certain runs but I’m quite certain I could hear that many notes clearly to have had even entertained that suspicion – as far as I was concerned, no notes were minced nor glossed, and the sheer straightforwardness of style must have given Brahms an ironic, but hardly pretentious, sense of amusement.

As for the less important but little things, Rozhdestvensky’s baton audibly tapped his score on quite a few occasions, and conducted in a very clean, squarish manner. It was also quite amusing to see him cue the soloist/his wife without her looking up.  Postnikova rounded up the performance with a tender and silkily rubato-ed rendition of Schumann’s Traumerei (during which a clarinettist’s phone, I believe, rang).

I was somewhat ashamed that there was no standing ovation given, as far as I could tell. (not for the phone ringing)

Brahms left the orchestra to its devices, which were possibly running at (or beyond) it’s peak. Having had at most a couple of spots in the concerto during which the soloist was audibly out of ensemble, SSO proceeded to bring the house down with Brahms’ Pastorale (semi-oxymoron intended).

Apart from the impossible viola syncopation and a single raindrop-esque tutti pizzicato, what struck me most were the smiles on the faces of the orchestra. Not the average polite smiles given to an average guest conductor – there sat on the stage of Esplanade Concert Hall, adults who had been playing the “most serious” genre of music for decades, grinning widely like primary school kids. The only deduction I could gather was that the conductor was either pulling funny faces or giving knowing looks, or both, at strategic moments, all without breaking step in pulse. The most ridiculous part of this opinion would also be that it worked phenomenally well, and not intending hyperbole here. The audience must have felt it too, for despite the lack of energy in their legs, the applause threatened to defy the fact that the concert had to come to a close, and along with it, the exeunt of  Rozhdestvensky and the SSO.

 

Gennady Rozhdestvensky with David Oistrakh:

 

Viktoria Postnikova, from the few clips available on youtube:

Rachmaninov’s 1st Piano Concerto, 3rd movement (embedding disabled)

 

The End of a Sem

I’ve failed, and am still failing, to categorise my posts. Least because I tend to cram everything that could be crammed into one posts that even tags fail me.

So on to business.

Thanks to some inspiration from Xaerenh, Edna Millay and Wordsworth I decided to start practising writing sonnets.
Thanks to my idiocy in assuming that only the rhyme scheme was important I ended up with 14 syllables per line instead of iambic pentameter. This makes it follow a limbic bakersdozenmeter.
To rectify my faux pas the last 2 lines were written in (hopefully iambic) pentameter.

The Wit That Writ 1 ( also known as: I need a better title)

The hand follows the mind and the mind follows the heart
Upon the setting of the sun the stars snatch back the reins
Uncertainty dissolves at once on releasing of the dart
Yet hesitates a moment on the sound of distant strains
The end of fear – a human born from ashes, grows apart
Where snow’s a friend – a frigid cousin of tropical rains
Elysium but the carvings of the cunning and the smart
On papyrus and canvas – but a smear of naive stains

So once upon a time the stick, the quill, the fountain pen
Submitted, bent all crooked, to the muses, iron-willed
Who drew all that was fresh and pure from Earth’s most precious fen
Discarding as they went – ruthlessly – ignorance distilled

Yet they know best that every written plea
Will die – all stars must fade eventually

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Concert Review: Conservatory Chamber Series – Strings
25 Nov 2011 @ YST Concert Hall

This was actually scrawled down on the pioneering-booklet-form programme after I decided to be an annoying enough prick to scribble out loud in the middle of a (largely empty) concert (hall). Incidentally, it was done not more than an hour of my reading and reciting drugs for diabetes for Pharmacology 2 on the circle line MRT like the mad scientist that I actually am.

Apparently this month’s theme is “love”.

Bolded and individual comments were mostly recorded on the performance night itself.

Programme:

Smetana – String Quartet No.1 in E minor: I. Allegro vivo Appassionato

Yay my favourite. Hopefully every violist’s favourite.

Charged & energetic take, with a momentum that however left little space for rubato (transition into the development and lyrical sections). In a stream, there a rapids and there are pools. A stream with only rapids is exciting to watch but difficult to ford. (note: I really wrote that, don’t ask me why)

Slight coordination slips may have been due to nerves, being the 1st group of the night.

V1: Lead more, and be able to slow down
V2: Playing the 2nd violin =/= playing 2nd fiddle
Vla: Fiery take on the solo
Cello: Needs to maintain intensity (note: for the only guy in the quartet, being the least manly sounding of the group was amusing hehe)

The performance was exciting, unrelenting, like the flow of the stream-image I associate with this movement, yet there was no abating to the flow. It may have been an intended interpretation, and would have been successful at that, yet in this case the exacerbated difficulty of ensemble reared its ugly head. The opening chord and key changes proved to be tough on the tuning, with the (more technically difficult) running passages doing much better in this aspect.

P.S. The opening chord is actually rather devilish, from what I can hear on youtube and personal experience.

Mendelssohn – String Quartet in D major: III. Andante espressivo ma con moto

Jon Lee’s quartet! I heard the recording a few times at home, but it didn’t really stick in my head. Mendelssohn did the pseudo-basso-continuo thing in this moment as well with a pulse running through the whole piece, like in one of the movements in his 4th symphony “Italian” (of which I’m lazy to check)

Good ensemble and tone with great individual intensity not usually associated with “Mendelssohnian” music. Would have been greatly augmented by greater detail and tempo control in phrasing.

This group apparently played better during rehearsal, and indeed there were some problems in intonation and blending. Accuracy and tone were good otherwise. The players seemed quite upset overall though.

V1: Passionate but needs to know when to slow down – like in the 1st group
V2: Steely and clear articulation, could be slightly more assertive with such a strong sense of the music. Good coordination.
Vla: Apparently had some issues with notes and intonation. Made the most visible effort in shaping the mood, phrasing and ensemble and overall good tone.
Cello: The A string sounded flat, but overall good tone and phrasing.

Again, it seemed that nerves got the better of the  music, restricting the phrases by holding the tempo hostage. The forward drive seemed dangerous at times. Ensemble and tone was overall great if a little overshadowed by nerves and possibly a change in tuning of strings by the temperature difference between the backstage and hall.

Beethoven – Piano Trio in C minor: I. Allegro con brio

The most well blended ensemble however did so at the expense of a certain degree of individuality. Direction and phrasing was clear, and would be well served by assertion of personality.

Looks like I can never be satisfied. Interestingly enough, the V1 was waiting for the pianist and even gave him a “you first” gesture before the pre-performance bowing. Not a very positive image for a concert hall stage scenario – but I look past that. Ironically (and poetically so) the V1 turned out to be a genius at tone production an control in the Beethoven-ian styles, holding the line with a lyrical tone that oldschool types like myself crave.

V1: Entrance more imposing – Great tone control. Keep concentration (slips at random “simple” places)
Cello: Blended very well (this is more of a compliment than it seems)
Piano: Slightly more crisp tone on running notes (would have served the  acoustics of the hall much, much better)

Arensy – Piano Trio in D Minor:
I. Allegro moderato
II. Scherzo – Allegro molto 

Clarity, direction, purity of tone and excellent understanding of the style led to a performace that held the audience rapt at attention for the longer-than-average performance (of the night).

A great curtain closer before the intermission. The visiting quartet were wolf-whistling.

V1: A little tense in his sitting position but it didn’t really matter. Great tone and a superlative performance
Cello: The instrument seemed to be buzzing and may have affected the tone and the dynamic range. Again, it didn’t really matter in the overall presentation of the performance. Some audience members noted her flamboyant dress but were promptly silenced by the music.
Piano:  Clarity of tone travelled all the way to the back of the hall.

There are times when you hear something and stop all that you are doing (in this case, scribbling) and become compelled to watch at full attention for the rest of the duration of the performance. Unfortunately, I resumed writing somewhere in the middle after the 1st movement ended.

Dvorak – String Quartet No.10 in E-flat Major: I. Allegro ma non troppo

I felt this was more impressive than it appeared, due to the incredible blending and shaping (with a tad narrow dynamic range, but I don’t know the piece well anyway).

Excellent ensemble & blending. Could bring out contrapuntal textures. Quartet sounded very organic and understood each other well.

V1: Naturally dark violin needs care on the highest notes. (there were some squeaks on the E string)
V2: Contrapuntal textures can be brought out
Vla: Great tone, some clarity problems due to instrument/strings? (or perhaps articulation?)
Cello: Great control over phrasing and tone

Tchaikovsky – String Quartet No.3 in E-flat minor: II. Allegretto vivo e scherzando

Great synchronicity of articulation and dynamics.

Note: From here on I stopped writing since I just wanted to listen to the great performances.

Ravel – String Quartet in F major (2 groups played 1 movement each)
I. Allegro moderato – Très doux
IV. Vif et agité 

1st mvt: A very smooth rendition, with the 1st violin taking a very coy portamento up to the highest notes that was at once remarkable and apt. The individual lines of each part were also very well maintained and characterised.

4th mvt: The great curtain closer. Fiery, charged and deserving of the last spot in the programme.

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Epilogue: I’ll add the update later this week seeing as how long this post already is. So Ciao!