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25 Mar 2019

Project IDIOM Launch Concert – A Solidly Designed Recital Programme

Esplanade Recital Studio
9 Mar 2019 (Sa)
1:30 PM – 3:30 PM and 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM

Performers: Take 5, Nicholas Loh, Cherie Tse, Sim Wei Ying

Contributed by Chua Jon Lin

The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) would like to thank our member Chua Jon Lin for contributing her review to CSS’ website. All views belong purely to the author.

(This review concerns the 1:30 PM concert. Read here the review of the 7:30 PM concert, featuring a different programme.)

This inaugural concert featuring the chamber works of local composers offered an aural buffet of works ranging from highly atonal styles to post-Romantic lyricism. The first half of the concert featured the Take 5 Piano Quintet (Foo Say Ming, Lim Shue Churn, Chan Yoong-Han, Chan Wei Shing, Lim Yan), while the second half featured pianist Nicholas Loh and sopranos Cherie Tse and Sim Wei Ying.

The concert opened with Kelly Tang’s Quintet for Piano and Strings, a single-movement work whose harmonic language brings to mind Schoenberg’s freely atonal works from the middle period of his compositional life. Tang’s continuous five-part piece is very much centered around motifs, and emphasizes symmetry. The work opens with an almost Bartókian sort of energy, propelling forward towards a grand climax marked by massive piano chords, before giving way to a lyrical passage characterized by lush string playing. A fugue passage follows, building up in density towards a savage frenzy, before recapitulating in a palindromic manner with the appearance of the second lyrical theme before the opening energetic theme.

Tang’s piece was followed by Kam Kee Yong’s String Quartet no. 2 in D minor, which heavily displays the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, providing a clear contrast with its post-Romantic style. The piece extensively employed augmented seconds and their related scales such the double harmonic major scale (also known as the “Arabic” scale) and the harmonic major scale in the lyrical second movement. Kam’s own training as a violinist showed through his lush writing for strings and the various solo lines, which the players excellently delivered with their warm and full tones.

The third piece on the programme, Joyce Koh’s What’ll we do?, could almost be dubbed a “trio for five players.” Koh’s richly gestural piece serves almost as a musicalization of the theatrical aspects of Beckett’s seminal absurdist play Waiting for Godot. Throughout the piece, the dynamic between all five musicians are constantly changing, as Koh constantly reconfigures their parts into two or three musical layers at a time. Usually the first violin and viola form one layer, the second violin and cello form the second layer, while the piano either holds its own, or flits in between both layers as support. Here the piano almost symbolises the exchange (or lack of) between the characters in the play. At times this configuration changes, as if revealing the fragile and unstable nature of the interactions between both characters. Koh also systematically zooms into her musical exploration of the play’s dialogue, with the first to the fourth movement representing a shift from the macro into the micro.

Following Koh’s highly atonal piece was Tan Chan Boon’s neoclassical Piano Quintet, adapted from his own Second String Quartet. Tan’s piece is a tribute to the past in different ways, including drawing upon a motif borrowed from Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défuncte, classical forms, fugal writing, and even from his own personal memory of his father’s death. Also interesting was Tan’s approach towards the rewriting of his quartet for a quintet instrumentation: instead of rewriting all the parts, he added a piano part presenting fresh new musical ideas on top of the existing string parts. Such ingenuity showed up particularly in the fugue of the second movement. Here the piano played an independent poignant theme simultaneously with the subject entries by the strings, blending in and yet standing out at the same time without interfering with the unfolding of the fugue. His highly motivic approach to writing also takes on an expressive dimension, such as during the transfiguration of the main motif, featuring oscillating minor seconds is to major seconds, in a highly symbolic gesture of his father’s release from pain and suffering.

In contrast to the rather heavy first half of the programme, the second half was considerably lighter and flowed by beautifully in a seamless manner. The audience was requested to withhold their applause up to the very end, as each piece (either for solo piano or soprano and piano) segued from one to another.

The second half opened with Chen Zhangyi’s Walks, a piano miniature adapted from his work Walks on Water for piano and Pierrot ensemble/chamber orchestra.  Chen’s post-impressionist work served as a lovely prelude to the second half of the concert, with its flowing figures, generously-pedalled sonorities, lush harmonies, and lyricism, setting the tone for the light vocal fare that followed.

Pianist Nicholas Loh then segued into the introduction to Tsao Chieh’s Old House at Ang Siang Hill, based on the poem of the same title by Arthur Yap, while soprano Cherie Tse made her way out onto the stage. The flowing piano figurations marked by quartal and quintal sonorities and pentatonicism followed in an impressionist vein, providing a smooth transition. Tsao’s contemplative musical setting focuses more on the emotive aspect of Yap’s text, conveying sentiments of wistful longing, possibly with the use of pentatonicism symbolic of ties to the past.

Leong Yoon Pin’s three songs Two Orioles, Only If and Awaiting followed in a similar vein musically, with Mandarin song texts. These texts’ origins ranged from the work of Singaporean lyricists to Tang Dynasty poetry. The music writing across all three songs was lyrical, featuring fast-flowing toccata-like piano figurations, modulations effected by deceptive cadences, and some borrowing of lush jazz harmonies (such as the sharp 9 sonority). The repetitive occurrence of the motif formed by the interval of the third conveyed a pensive sense of longing in the third song.

Leong’s three songs soon gave way to the subdued tones in Ho Chee Kong’s piece for solo piano Still…, which followed attacca as Tse made her exit off the stage. Despite the vastly contrasting musical language, the musical transition from the previous piece into this piece was convincingly smooth. Ho’s piece was highly gestural and atonal, suspending any sense of musical pulse that had been established over the second half of the programme. Silences dominated the piece, providing the listener with a meditative space for quiet contemplation.

This stillness of space provided by Ho’s piece perfectly set the stage for the selections from John Sharpley’s set of songs Common Threads, the largest work presented on the second half of the concert. Sharpley’s songs explore the underlying connections between various religions, with each song performed in this concert based upon a different religious text. There was a great sense of continuity from the silences in Ho’s piece to the sparse textures of the Sharpley’s first song My Voice representing the Jewish faith, which began with the soprano’s solo entry. The second song In the Heart is taken from the ancient Hindu text, the Upanishads, and features calm piano writing with held chords and some florid figures. The third song Money, based upon a poem by Rumi, from the Sufi tradition within Islam, features more lyrical writing. The fourth song Water, representing Christianity, features mainly pedalled trills and tremolos in the piano writing, with the text being recited in spoken form. The last song presented for the afternoon, In An Instant, is based upon text adapted from the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead, presenting otherworldly sonorities with the use of tritones and plucked piano notes. Like a spinning prayer wheel, the song ends off with relentless repetitive figures, as the texture thins out layer by layer, ending on a single note with the lights in the recital hall going out suddenly. One could not have asked for a better ending to this concert.

The variety in compositional styles and subject matter presented within this solidly designed recital programme reveals the many faces of Singaporean composers, past and present. Such a promising launch concert definitely sets up the expectation for many more exciting concerts to come.