31 August 2016

A Trio of Singapore Concerts

The task of the sub-editor is a thankless one.  Obliged to cut contributor's copy to fill the available space and working to unforgiving deadlines, there is always the accusation (usually from the contributors themselves) that they have performed a "hatchet-job", mercilessly expunging the most vital parts of the contributor's text and transforming a finely-honed and carefully crafted exercise in literary beauty into an incoherent block of gobbledygook.  Sub-editors on British papers used to be notorious for simply cutting out the last lines of a submission when space constraints were imposed, and breaking up sentences and paragraphs into amazing convolutions in an attempt to increase the space taken up on the page. 

Add to this the sub-editor's responsibility for checking facts, watching for sensitive issues which might lead to legal hot water (a very present problem in Singapore) and generally modifying the contributor's material to conform to a house style and to meet more closely the perceived demands, linguistic and technical, of the readership.

I have suffered as much as anybody at the hands of sub-editors, but I still marvel that they can perform their job with so much pressure all around them, so I don't often complain.  Neither do I, as a matter of course, post up on my blog the "raw" material which went off to the paper; I still accept that the sub-editor knows their job and even if I don't like what they have done, I stand by it and let what personal upset I feel pass me by.

As it happens, though, I had a flurry of comments about some reviews of mine which appeared in the Straits Times over the weekend, pointing out errors of fact, substance and phraseology, As, moreover, the reviews reflected some of the huge diversity of live classical music events which take place in Singapore on a weekly basis, I felt reprinting the three reviews here would not only draw attention to Singapore's increasingly active musical life to those whose daily life is never touched by the Straits Times, but might help those who felt that the reviews were in some way flawed, to identify the genuine flaws I made (And there are plenty of those) from those the sub-editors unwittingly added.

“Javier Perianes Plays Grieg”

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Javier Perianes (piano)/Michal Nesterowicz (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Friday (26 August)

Once upon a time in the world of classical music, you couldn’t go anywhere without stumbling across Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  Orchestras, big, little, good and bad played it at every opportunity, it dribbled endlessly out of hidden speakers in hotel lobbies, and amateur pianists would spontaneously burst into its opening cascade or its syrupy main theme in the hope that nobody would realise that was the limit of their public repertory.  Somewhere along the line, Grieg’s Piano Concerto seems to have fallen out of favour, so hearing it on Friday evening was like reviving a long-lost friendship.

Javier Perianes is not a muscular pianist, but neither is he a sentimental one, and his performance of the Grieg was refreshingly direct.  There were flashes of vivid colour – evidence of his Spanish heritage – and moments of gentle caress, and with the first movement cadenza he produced a tone so haunting and other-worldly one wondered why the SSO had not programmed this Concerto a couple of months later to tie-in with Hallowe’en.

What made the performance particularly bracing was conductor Michal Nesterowicz’s brisk, no-nonsense approach, never allowing the music to wallow in its own expressive lagoons but always steering it onwards with a clear sense of direction.  The Grieg Concerto is, at heart, little more than a collection of nice tunes strung together not always particularly well, but here was a performance which gave it a strong aura of cohesion.

No report of this performance could be allowed to pass without mention of Jamie Hersch’s exquisite horn playing.  Such was the audience’s adulation of Perianes that the orchestra and conductor got rather side-lined; but Hersch at least would have fully deserved a personal ovation all of his own.

Orchestra and conductor had the stage to themselves for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Sibelius’s Third Symphony where, again, Nesterowicz pushed things along briskly with a powerful sense of purpose.  This resulted in a stirring – if slightly ragged - performance of the Tchaikovsky, but rather had the effect of transforming Sibelius’s Finnish peasant dances into something more suited to a Polish dockside tavern.

Nesterowicz is an exceptionally tall conductor who, standing flat on the stage surrounded by the strings with neither rostrum nor music stand, towers monumentally over the orchestra.  From this elevated vantage point he seemed to draw up from the SSO string players a sound of ravishing beauty.  This made its presence most potently felt in their encore – Sibelius’s Valse Triste – which the SSO musicians offered as their own personal  tribute to the late Mr S R Nathan.  It was a deeply moving climax to a day of highly-charged emotion.



Singapore Lyric Opera/Joshua Kangming Tan (conductor)/Lo King-man (director)

Esplanade Theatre

Saturday (27 August)

Marc Rochester

The masterstroke in Lo King-man’s production is its directness.  Neither minimalist nor gimmicky, it captures the very essence of Puccini’s final opera.  Under Joshua Kangming Tan, the SLO Orchestra performed near-miracles in the pit while, with Tan Ju Meng’s uncluttered set design, magical lighting from Adrian Tan and some wonderful costumes from Mandy Tam, the notion of some mythical Chinese past was strongly conveyed.

When the Emperor appeared on stage, effectively played as an old, withered and deeply human individual by Leslie Tay, a vast tribal head descended as a backdrop, underlining the essentially pagan atmosphere of the opera.  This also solved the problem of making credible Princess Turandot’s seemingly inhuman cruelty.  In the title role, a steely-voiced Jee-hye Han certainly exuded icy disdain for humanity, but her diction was so obscure that, were it not for the well-synchronized sur-titles, we would have had no idea what she was singing about.

Perfect diction, perfect pitching, perfect vocal control and a voice to die for were provided in good measure by Li Yang who as Liu, the loyal-to-death slave girl spurned in love, stole the entire audience’s heart, not least with a ravishing account of her first act aria “Signore, ascolta”.  Her death scene in the final act was, in every respect, the true climax of the production.  William Lim, cut a profoundly tragic figure as the blind, dethroned King Timur, desperately hoping she was just asleep.

So captivating was Li’s portrayal of Liu that one wondered why the young Prince Calaf was so eager to abandon her in preference for the ghastly Turandot. Calaf is a devilishly difficult role to make real, but Lee Jae Wook was very impressive even if he was never going to shake off the ghosts of all those tenors who have made the great act three aria, “Nessun Dorma”, their own.  Luckily, Joshua Tan’s musical instincts drove the aria on so fervently that it still touched the right emotional buttons.

Vocally uneven but hugely entertaining with their on-stage chemistry, Martin Ng, Raymond Lee and Peter Ong as the androgynous government ministers Ping, Pang and Pong, cut just the right comic note to balance with the supercharged emotions elsewhere, while the Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus were in superlative collective voice.  Occasionally wooden in their on-stage movements, they were never anything less than compelling in their singing both on and off stage. 

And if the white-clad children’s chorus was a little fidgety at times, they should have got the nerves out of their system by tonight’s performance – and if not, it only adds to the charm of their on-stage presence. Turandot ends tomorrow and, if you haven’t seen it already, get a ticket; it’s a fabulous show.


VCH Organ Series – Margaret Chen

String Orchestra/Loh Jun Hong & Gabriel Ng (violins), Margaret Chen (organ), Joshua Tan (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall

Sunday (28 August)

Marc Rochester

Organized chaos seems the best way of describing Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No.1.  With all 24 players on the VCH stage appearing to be doing their own thing and Shane Thio eagerly jumping from prepared piano to harpsichord and back again, occasional glimpses of identifiable musical ideas did burst through, like flames licking out of a nearly-extinguished fire, but were immediately smothered by the mass of orchestral sound.  No wonder a goodly portion of the audience was profoundly perplexed.

Conductor Joshua Tan kept it tightly under control, but at the expense of the music’s essential humour.  Schnittke’s score is renowned for its sense of the comic, but for these well-drilled musicians, this was all deadly serious stuff.  Even Thio’s silly little harpsichord tango failed to raise a smile. 

Technically this was extremely impressive playing all round, but rising above it all the two violin protagonists, Loh Jun Hong and Gabriel Ng, were in a class of their own.  Working in perfect partnership, they created a tangible feeling of unity and comradeship floating free and easy above the chaos around them.   Such close working relationships were not always evident elsewhere in the programme.

Margaret Chen and her accomplice had some fundamental disagreements over Bach’s great Passacaglia and Fugue.  While Chen played the notes, the accomplice pushed out and pulled in the stops, manipulated the foot pedals and generally flitted around the organ like some over-attentive housemaid.  More than once they bumped into each other - Chen would be merrily playing something sweet and charming when, all of a sudden, all hell broke out in the pipe department as a cluster of stops was drawn out unexpectedly. This clearly disconcerted Chen who stumbled and spluttered until equilibrium was restored. 

However, while it was by no means note perfect, this was a performance driven by an intense communicative urge and a searing sense of purpose.  If to achieve such musical rewards Chen needed to sacrifice some of her technical polish, it was a sacrifice well worth making.

Handel’s B flat Organ Concerto also suffered from a breakdown in partnership, this time the almost inevitable consequence of the logistical nightmare of coordinating an orchestra on stage with the VCH organ stuck against the wall with its back to the orchestra. 

Chen did much to bring colour and variety to the solo part while Joshua Tan made earnest attempts to keep it all together.  The end result was, though, decidedly furry around the edges, and there were moments when organ and orchestra were so out of synch that it came close to disorganised chaos.


23 August 2016

Death by Music

One of the weirdest things I was taught when I started French horn lessons was that I had to give the instrument a weekly bath.  At the age of 12, a weekly bath was something I regarded as a chore in my own life; having to do the same for my French horn seemed the ultimate in idiocy.  But, keen as I was to learn, and anxious as I was to impress my teacher, I duly filled the bath every Saturday afternoon with lukewarm water, stuck my horn in it and let it soak.  I’m glad I did: I’m still alive to tell the tale.

The real value of the weekly horn bath was only driven home today when a news item on the BBC told of a man who died following inhaling the build-up of fungus from the inside of his unwashed bagpipes (  www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-37152871 ). A keen bagpiper in the UK has died at the age of 61 and investigations revealed that he had developed a fatal infection from the mould and fungus collected over the years in his instrument. 

Every brass player knows the problem.  Water (condensation rather than dribble) collects inside the instrument, causing an uncontrollable clicking sound, and needs to be released by means of a valve or through simply pouring it out of the end of a piece of pipe or of the instrument itself.  In the days when music exams were done in private houses, it was common for the householders to insist on “no brass” in order to protect their carpets from wet deposits from brass instruments.  Others would ostentatiously put old sheets or newspapers on the floor and instruct the hapless brass player to “empty your spit on that”.  One socialist householder, seeing me arrive with a copy of the Daily Telegraph under my arm, got his own back on my choice of right-wing reading material by insisting I place it on the floor whenever brass players came into the room.  I’ve even heard of brass students told not to empty their instruments in the exam: with disastrous consequences.

Emptying and cleaning the inside of wind instruments is now shown to be not just musically essential but medically so as well.  We are well aware of the problems of Repetitive Strain Injury in violinists and cellists, and Alexander technique specialists spend hours working on musicians’ posture in an attempt to prevent long-term injuries, but never before has anything associated with a musical instrument been shown to have potentially fatal consequences.

The French conductor Lully was the first recorded examples of a musician killed by performing his instrument (he stabbed himself in his foot whilst conducing a performance of a Te Deum on 8th January 1687).  Let’s hope that our unnamed bagpiper will be the last.  Lovely as music-making is, it really should not be a matter of life and death.

16 August 2016

Wet, Warm and Pleasantly Windy

Pavlo Beznosiuk has been in Singapore for a few days.  For those unacquainted with his eminence, he is one of the leading figures in the British Early Music brigade, specialising in the music of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  His recordings with the Avison Ensemble, released on the Linn label, have been among the most consistently impressive recordings of this area of the repertory in recent times, and it was hoped he could bring some of his magic to Singapore.
On Thursday he ran a masterclass for conservatory students focusing on playing early music on modern instruments.  I would have dearly loved to have been there, but another commitment found me on the other side of town at the same time.  However Beznosiuk put his ideas into practice over the next three days, presented a series of concerts with various members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
The alliterative title of this series of concerts was Wind, Water & Waves, but while the first and last of those only occasionally washed into the programme – notably in one of Vivaldi’s Tempesta di mare concertos and in Locke’s incidental music for The Tempest – the programme cleverly featured water in a huge variety of guises.  From two sets of Water Music (Handel and Telemann), Vivaldi’s Overture to “The River Seine Rejoicing” (La Senna Festeggiante), Telemann’s musical celebration of Hamburg’s Alster Lake and his extraordinary concerto nicknamed “the Frog” (Frogs do, after all, mate in water, I believe).
Possibly flowing over three consecutive evenings flooded out Singaporean tolerance levels a bit much, and the tide of attendance ebbed very low – especially on the Friday.  On top of that, a cursory skim through the programmes might have created the impression that there really was not much to choose between the concerts.
In the event these three performances could hardly have been more different.  This was not down to the music nor even Beznosiuk’s wonderfully calm and laid-back approach – although he did become increasingly loquacious over the three days – but to the changes of personnel in the higher orchestral strings.
The winds and double basses always seemed to be loving every moment of it.  On Friday, in particular, the wind were up on stage well before the concert began (presumably to keep their instruments at the freezing temperatures the authorities feel is right for the Victoria Concert Hall – it is a fact which few Singapore students believe, but Asian concert halls are considerably colder than Asian ones) and were clearly looking forward to working with Beznosiuk. 
Their happy demeanour was in stark contrast to that of many of the string players, who came in with Beznosiuk at the start of the concert.  Full praise to double bass Jacek Mirucki who, throughout the first half of the concert was clearly having an absolute ball, entering in to the fun of the music with alacrity.  His second half colleague, Guennadi Mouzyka was similarly cheerful and obviously only too happy to be there. Not so the others who turned up grim-faced and sour, looking as if they begrudged every second spent on stage, and sounding utterly waterlogged.  Rebel’s enormously entertaining ballet describing Les élémens came across as soggy and damp, while Telemann’s “Die Relinge” only tickled the funny bone because of Beznosiuk’s wryly sardonic interventions.
Saturday’s team was a wholly different crew.  Perhaps fired by news of aquatic Gold from Rio, they threw themselves into the programme with relish, dedicating it to the gold medal-winner himself.  (An Olympic gold medal, deferral of national service, a million dollars and an SSO concert dedication – can things get any better for Joseph Schooling?) 
Highlight of this concert was the fascinating Concerto for Four Violins by the largely forgotten Italian composer Giuseppe Valentini.  Beznosiuk inspired Team SSO - Karen Tan, Margit Saur and Chikako Sasaki – to produce some scintillatingly agile playing, while the four violinists goaded themselves into ever greater feats of technical bravado, much like great Olympians spurring each other on to ever greater feats of physical endeavour.
Enough of the Olympics.  Now to Sunday’s concert.
The orchestra was the largest and visibly happiest of the three concerts. Beznosiuk himself was having a ball, taking time out to talk informally to the audience and even inserting into Vivaldi’s already extraordinary Concerto in D RV562 such an extraordinary cadenza (much of it based on one of Bach’s favourite Vivaldi pieces) that we seemed in danger of being inundated under the deluge of his gushing virtuosity.
Sunday’s programme began with Matthew Locke’s vividly descriptive incidental music to a stage presentation of The Tempest and ended with a rollicking account of movements from the most famous water music of them all - the Water Music suites Handel wrote for the Thames flotilla assembled in 1717 by King George I. 
A series of concerts which had begun as a damp squib ended in cascades of triumphant glory.