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.

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“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.

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Turandot

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.

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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.

 

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