31 August 2015

Telling Musical Stories

It is getting to the stage where any concert featuring Clarence Lee is almost guaranteed to be something special, and that was certainly the case with Monday lunchtime’s students’ recital at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore.  Lee opened with Chopin’s Ballade in F minor holding the usually restless audience in thrall from the very outset.  He does not indulge in the physical mannerisms, the exhibitionist quirks or the machine-like obsession with technical precision of other pianists on the threshold of their careers; rather he addresses the piano as the means by which he is going to convey the visions and ideas of the composer, and through subtle nuance of tone and a real appreciation of musical architecture, he communicates a powerful sense of interpretative authority.  His focus is, above all, on communicating the story of the music, and all his efforts go into that.  In this case we had a vivid and compelling Ballade delivered, as the title suggests, in the manner of a detailed and absorbing tale.  Those irritating Chopin-isms much beloved by so many pianists – anguished pauses, copious rubatos and rolling ecstatic expressiveness – had no place here, and the result was a performance of real musical distinction.

More vivid story telling came with two movements from Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto.  Violinist Xu Minjia and pianist Ge Xiaozhe delivered a superbly lyrical “Aria II” and a truly scintillating “Capriccio”, and if, in both movements, the impact of the respective openings was not fully sustained through to the end – in the Aria it needed a little more interpretative coordination to match  Xu’s instinctively poetic phrasing with Ge’s crisply articulated piano line – both players showed a real affinity with Stravinsky’s almost obsessively driven rhythmic writing and his sharp-edged, crystal clear textures.  Perhaps wit and colour were at a premium; but we could all appreciate the astonishing technical assurance of these two players in music which is not always easy to communicate.

One of the good things about having so iconic a Head of Brass as Brett Stemple is the prominence given in performances in the Conservatory to the tuba.  Although he would be the last person to agree, Stemple is probably doing more to elevate the tuba  from its perceived place as Big Round Bottom than anyone else around today, not by writing new music or promoting it shamelessly in performances, but by imbuing into his students that same sense of musical integrity and conviction that characterises his own playing.  Today it was the turn of Teng Siang Hong to present two short and very descriptive pieces, beginning with a movement from the Tuba Sonata by the 65-year-old Norwegian composer Trygve Madsen.  The haunting, evocative theme given out by the tuba at the start immediately characterised Teng as a sensitive player whose beautifully smooth and rounded tone, gently caressed by the slightest hint of a vibrato, was supported by a wonderful level of breath control and stability.  If the music told tales of fjords and forests, it avoided any hint of the kind of deep grotesqueries we might be tempted to look for in tuba writing.  A fine work, beautifully and compellingly played today.  Although largely reflective and at times subdued, Quiescence, composed by Teng’s accompanist for the day, Low Shao Suan, revealed its origins as a piece for double bass rather than tuba, and from the long sustained notes to the frequent alternations of notes, it was certainly far more idiomatic of string than brass writing.  But in Teng the work had a fine advocate who not only took ownership of these rather obvious string-isms and made them sound quite at home on the tuba, but also understood the piece to be far more than just a catalogue of technical devices. As with Lee and Xu, Teng also showed that a combination of real technical skill and intense interpretative awareness can create vivid and wholly absorbing musical performances.

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