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30 Nov 2018

Concert Report: SETTS #8

Esplanade Recital Studio
27 Nov 2018 (Tu)
8:00 PM – 9:00 PM

  • Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin (SG) – Intuition for String Quartet
  • Katharina Klement (AT) – Lokus Fokus
  • Emily Koh (SG/US) – bridging:isolation
  • Gabriele Proy (AT) – Lavendula Vera for piano quintet
  • Diana Soh-Hudry (SG/FR) – For for clarinet and piano
  • Johanna Doderer (AT) – Piano Trio No. 5

Contributed by Timothy Tan

The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) would like to thank our member Timothy Tan for contributing his review to CSS’ website. All views belong purely to the author.

In today’s musical world whereby men’s traditional dominance faces increasing scrutiny, the new music scene is no exception. SETTS #8 concert, by Southeastern Ensemble for Today’s and Tomorrow’s Music (SETTS), not only featured a union of two trios of composers from two countries far apart (Austria and Singapore), but also adopted a stand that even women composers deserves merit. In fact, no male composers’ works were featured this time, and the performers, albeit as one portion of SETTS ensemble, almost formed gender parity.

The concert started with Intuition (2011) for string quartet by Singaporean composer Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin, who was in the audience. The first movement brought forth a lot of energy, with the strings playing cohesively and tightly. The music also adopted a dark, at times cautious mood. This mood extended further in the second movement, when it harboured a more pensive character. Here the strings were afforded more room to play individual, intertwining passages that suggested the feeling of longing. Perhaps the strings could sound a bit warmer, so as to enhance the longing.

Next was Emily Koh’s Bridging Isolation (2013) for clarinet, violin and piano. The clarinet introduced with a bright opening. At times listeners could hear random vocal calls from the clarinet that echoed Olivier Messiaen’s birdsong quotations. This work is slightly more demanding, with sufficient compositional space given to each instrument’s striking voices, though the composer occasionally established connections between the instruments. The piano was at times ominous, before increasing tension near the end, which created a cliffhanger as its climax, and as the end of the work.

The first Austrian composer to be featured, Gabriele Proy was the only other composer present for SETTS #8 concert. That night she received the Asian premiere of her Lavendula Vera (2013) for piano quintet. This work brought in a great contrast of compositional style. She opted for a more tonal, accessible approach in this work, with hints of minimalism. Split into four movements, the work relied upon economical use of pitches, and sparse chords reminiscent of Debussy’s. All these helped pushed forward the leisurely mood, apt for a stroll in the park. One might even wonder whether the work could work as well for a wind quintet. In fact the music bore little clues to the tribulations of her Greek grandmother, whom the composer paid tribute to with this work.

Diana Soh’s For (2008) for clarinet and piano, the last Singaporean composer’s work in the programme, demanded performers to be sensitive to the nuances. Though her work explored the circularity of musical sections, for listeners the nuances were more prominent, for even a lag in response could engender a totally different meaning. The clarinettist Colin Tan and the pianist Shane Thio performed compellingly, as they were fulfilling the explorative demands of timbres and articulations. At one moment Tan was playing towards the open piano body as a resonator, while Thio strummed the piano strings. The resultant timbral nuances could not have been better thought.

Next was the Singaporean premiere of the Austrian composer Johanna Doderer’s Piano Trio No. 5: Musical Images on the Fairy Tale ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (2017). Although this performance was not the full piece, the work itself was colourful, with dynamic mood changes. One movement could sound exciting, as if waiting for something to happen. Just as one was hearing traces of comfort, the next movement gave way to bad news, melancholy and anxiety, followed by romantic moments as the violin and cello interacted with one another. The performers captured the mood swings well, an important requirement since they intend to perform this work in schools as well.

The last piece was Lokus Fokus (2016) by Katharina Klement from Austria. It was the most adventurous work programmed, using an open-form composition that made this work conceptual. Listeners stood to hear audio recordings of birdsongs from a HDB estate (social housing in Singapore) and a famous wet market in Vienna. These sources are disparate. It remains to be seen how they could be well-glued by the performers, as the performers had random conversations with the recordings, like stitching random pieces of cloth. A pity that this piece was too short.

It is unusual that while the oldest work of the six was composed just ten years ago, for the three Austrian composers their works took place during their professional stages, but for the three Singaporean composers only during their developmental stages. The Singaporean composers’ works today are considerably more mature, which SETTS could have played. Either way, the world needs more performances of works from women composers, for gender parity with their male counterparts, and this trajectory is desirable. This concert definitely deserved more audience; only fifty seats were filled, just one-fifth of the audience capacity, certainly not on par with SETTS’ wonderful performance that night.