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.


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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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Preview: Tchaikovsky Tonight 4/6/2016


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 animationballet 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.

Tickets available at Sistic

Useful links:
Tchaikovsky Research wiki
LA Philharmonic Notes
Rictor Norton’s essays
The Development of Nationalistic Music in 19th-Century Russia by himchamchami

In and Over the Seas

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

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