A Few Words with LIONEL CHOI, Artistic Director, Singapore International Piano Festival 2011






All concerts begin at 8 pm / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall

Just a pitch for Singapore's annual international piano festival, one of the must-attends of Singapore's cultural calendar. As a former artistic director, it was a privilege to have a few words with my successor LIONEL CHOI (below), whose taste in pianists and piano literature is never less than impeccable. This year's festival is held at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, a different venue but the keyboard fireworks never ceases!

The Singapore International Piano Festival was founded in 1994, and this is your second year as Festival Director. What have been your inspirations in the planning and running of this annual event?

I have returned to the fundamentals, having always been thrilled and inspired by great piano music given fine, well-thought performances by outstanding pianists. That provides an opportunity for our audiences to not just hear great music, but to revel in high level of musical understanding. It is the sheer joy of piano music and experiencing it being performed live in a meaningful, hopefully inspiring way which I hope audiences will take away with them after every recital, every year.

Is there an underlying theme in this year’s festival?

This year's Festival is entitled "Transformation". There is the obvious reference to the art and technique of metamorphosis in musical and piano writing: taking a theme and transforming it through multiple, creative variations; re-creating non-piano works through inventive transcriptions; taking a basic musical concept such as a ‘ballade’ or a 'scherzo' and expanding it into an entirely independent, personal form, and so on. There is at least a set of variations and/or transcriptions in every recital.

There is also the inextricable link between life-changing life experiences and what shows up in the performance of the artist. In this specific respect, I was particularly moved by the story of Janina Fialkowska (Canada, left) who opens this year's Festival. A protege of Arthur Rubinstein, she was diagnosed in 2002 with a rare, cancerous tumour in her left shoulder muscle which threatened to end her career. Determined not to give up, she first set about learning the concertos and works originally written for the left hand only and transcribed them for her right hand. Following experimental treatment, surgeons completed a rare muscle transfer procedure, which eventually allowed her to regain control of the movement in her left arm. This allowed her to make a gradual return to the concert platform. What is particularly inspiring is how hard she worked at going back to the top of her craft. She still sounds completely unfazed even by the most fiendishly difficult of repertoire, which she despatches with such electrifying directness, poetic power of narration, inner emotional freedom and pulsating agility!

Who are this year’s recitalists, and what will your audience expect to take home?

Fialkowska will present a programme of contrasts, with Schubert alongside Szymanowski and Chopin. From deeply meditative to wildly virtuosic, Liszt’s works and transcriptions rounds off the thrilling Festival curtain-raiser. Arnaldo Cohen (Brazil, left) began his illustrious career in the 1970s. His graceful and unaffected stage manner belies playing of white-hot intensity, intellectual probity, and glittering bravura technique bordering on sheer wizardry. He will perform the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Chopin’s Four Scherzi and a dazzling array of pieces from his native Brazil.

Nareh Arghamanyan (Armenia, left), in her early 20s, won the Montreal Competition in 2008. She will play works by Rameau, Clementi, Schumann, Liszt's Ballade No. 2 and Rachmaninov's √Čtudes-Tableaux Op.33. Shai Wosner (Israel, below) brings a beautifully constructed programme of themes and variations, by Brahms, Beethoven and Oliver Knussen, and ends with the mighty and dramatic Appassionata Sonata by Beethoven.

Are there any particular performances which you think are going to be special or different?

I have been very judicious and discerning in our choice of pianists, each and every one selected for his artistic maturity and overall excellence in musicianship, over and above technical skill. I have also left the pianists to play whatever repertoire they are most comfortable with and I expect every performance to be, in its own way, special!

POETIC FANTASIES / Zhao Yang Ming Tian Piano Recital / Review

POETIC FANTASIES / Zhao Yang Ming Tian, Piano
Esplanade Recital Studio / Monday (30 March 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 June 2011 with the title "Chinese teen talent shines with poetic brilliance".

Ever wondered what celebrity pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi were like before they became really famous? Besides being better musicians, they probably possessed a certain innocence and humility that readily came across in their prodigious playing, far removed from the artifice that comes with hype.

17-year-old Chinese pianist Zhao Yang Ming Tian, originally from the island of Hainan, looks destined for bigger things when he departs Singapore for further studies in the United States. Those fortunate to have heard the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts student (a pupil of Benjamin Loh) will readily attest to his stylish playing, finesse of execution and fidelity to the score.

That is not to say he is slavish or pedantic, rather quite the opposite, where the music allows his artistry to take wing and soar. His farewell recital was full of such moments. Two very different Scarlatti Sonatas elicited diametric responses, a velvety sheen with generous pedalling sat comfortably with a rapier-sharp staccato technique.

In Mozart’s F major Sonata (K.332), fine legato lines he drew were as delicious as the prestidigitation in the stormy finale was blindingly brilliant. Two Chopin Mazurkas danced with invigorating and rustic lilt to the manner born, and the last five Chopin Pr√©ludes (from Op.28) encapsulated a wealth poetry and drama scarcely thought possible in such a short span of time.

Ravel’s insidious Valses nobles et sentimentales came across as slightly undercooked, but there was no denying the incisive thought, care for loving detail and nuance showered on the eight miniatures. The last three works demonstrated Zhao’s clear sympathy for Slavic music. Tchaikovsky’s Dumka, his trusty warhorse, reflected sadness and nostalgia through a series of increasingly virtuosic variations, topped with a spellbinding cadenza. One has seldom heard this better performed.

Somehow, Zhao got to the heart and soul of Bartok’s Three Folksongs from The Csik District, its Magyar accents and inflections almost like a second tongue to him. There was to be no vulgar showboating for the crowd-pleaser in Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. He played it straight and effect was no less spectacular.

Multiple curtain calls and cheers ensured three encores. The gorgeous cantabile in Chopin’s D flat major Nocturne (Op.27 No.2) left few dry eyes, while Earl Wild’s dizzying transcription of Fascinating Rhythm had the house in raptures. Singapore can be proud to have hosted this outsize talent for the last two years.

Dr. Johannes La Montagne: Manhattan's first physician

Nothing underscores the harshness of early New Amsterdam more than the notion that the Dutch settlement, which first formed at the tip of Manhattan in 1625, didn't actually have a trained physician for almost twelve years.

Most likely, in these earliest years, medical emergencies were handled by ship surgeons and non-professionals skilled in a set of rudimentary practices. More practiced professionals eventually came, such as the man who can lay claim to being Manhattan's first practicing physician Johannes La Montagne (also known as Jean Mousnieer de la Montagne), a Huguenot who arrived in 1637 and initially settled outside the colony in the village of Haarlem.

Johannes soon became "the only doctor in Manhattan in whom the settlers had any confidence," practicing surprisingly sophisticated innovations in Dutch medicine.

Shockingly, before La Montagne, if one needed actual surgery, one went to the barber. According to one old history, "it might be remarked that at that time barbers were commonly looked upon as surgeons. Any skilled barber was likely to be applied to for surgical procedures."

These 'barber-surgeons', adroit in "performing minor operations", mostly worked on ships and were hardly skilled in the modern advances of 17th century medicine. Eventually La Montagne was able to regulate these barber-surgeons himself, issuing permits to those practicing in the colony and even those who sailed out of New Amsterdam ports.

Like the millions of doctors who would follow in his footsteps, Johannes would soon benefit handsomely from his expertise, gaining a vote in the first official voting council of the new colony under director-general William Kieft.

Johannes was also the first of many Manhattan physicians who was also versed in the art of networking; within a year he became Kieft's right hand man and an extension of of the director-general's wishes, however misguided. He even briefly took over a small farm (around the area of upper Central Park today) maintaining the production of tobacco.

Unfortunately, this devotion to Kieft and the desires of the Dutch West India Company over the needs of the colonists proved to help undermine the new colony, eventually leading to Kieft's ouster and replacement by Peter Stuyvesant. To his credit, La Montague then won over the steadfast Stuyvesant, who kept him on as a member of his council.

He and his family stayed in the colony after its possession by the British, and it is believed to have spent the remainder of his life in Albany.  Today, descendants of the good doctor have set up their very own genealogical society. 

This article originally ran on May 9, 2009. Original is here

FAVOURITE CLASSICS / Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra / Review

FAVOURITE CLASSICS / Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra
SCO Singapore Conference Hall / Sunday (29 May 2011)

I am no masochist but I do enjoy concerts by the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO), Singapore’s only community orchestra. Being an amateur musician myself, I will never turn a nose at fellow amateurs pursuing what they enjoy, the passion of music making. Even if it is not at the same hallowed levels as groups like the Orchestra of the Music Makers or Philharmonic Orchestra (the best “amateur” orchestras in Singapore), effort and enthusiasm is what counts, and the BHSO has it in good measure.

Its latest concert had the usual share of highs and lows. A smaller orchestra than usual turned up for heavyweights like the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Mastersingers of Nuremberg and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. No matter, it generated a big sound, largely due to an overachieving, blustery and sometimes wild brass section and rather decent woodwinds. The string sound was very thin at parts but carried the melodies efficiently. The ensemble struggled in the busy counterpoint in the Wagner but it all came together for the final apotheosis.

The Tchaikovsky was a very ambitious effort, which paid off to a fair degree. Bassoonist Peter Lendermann provided a very steady opening solo, thus setting the tone for the rest of the first movement. The big “Pathetique” melody came across rather ragged when heard for the first time, owing to the strings and brass not being on the same frame of mind, so to speak. It was clarinettist Chen Weiling’s confident solos that eased the nerves somewhat. For the explosive development, the brass brayed and snarled, providing the dramatic episode its full quotient of bite and angst.

The second movement’s waltz was neither the most effortless nor graceful, but it had a good sense of rhythm, well marshalled by conductor Yan Yin Wing. There was something ungainly about the Scherzo’s march to the abyss, but it gathered paced inexorably, its irresistible momentum being the true driving force. Through all this, one could hear the individual quotations of Beethoven’s Fate motif by the wind and brass instruments, as well as sense the underlying tension as the screw is being turned. There was the customary misplaced applause which led into the depressing finale. The vale of tears brought on by the themes of descending notes revealed the music’s heart-wrenching quality. The climax of this deeply felt performance was well deserving of the applause it was accorded.

In between the two imposing works was Mozart’s slender Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat major (K.595), his last. The opening tutti was taken at too leisurely a pace. Sounding very raw and sluggish, this provided the guest soloist Albert Lin little to work upon. Unable to exert himself and force the pace against the will of the ensemble, the first movement was mired down in treacle. However the crystalline quality of his playing, always alert to the music’s finer points, was the saving grace of the performance.

Thankfully, both the slow movement and Rondo finale saw the piano deliver the opening gambits. Only then did the music take shape and given the necessary lift. The graceful Andante was lightly and tastefully ornamented, while good humour and high spirits dominated the Rondo. The cadenzas were well-turned and the performance closed on a high.

Those who know Albert to be a barnstorming virtuoso also got to see this side in his encore, the outrageous Arcadi Volodos version of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca. Delivered with absolute bravura and panache, the concert had finally come to life.

A Heritage Journey: Elegance of Nanyin / Singapore Arts Festival 2011 / Review

Singapore Arts Festival 2011 / Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall / Saturday (28 May 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 May 2011 with the title "Elegant ensemble of sound".

Nanyin, translated as “Southern music”, is an ancient musical tradition from the Southern Chinese province of Fujian. Referred to as a “living fossil”, its legacy of chamber music involves solo voice and a small assortment of instruments, performed by a small ensemble. How such a genre of diminutiveness and intimacy translated into a concert with a large group like the Singapore Chinese Orchestra was a bold experiment and labour of love.

Hong Kong-based composer Law Wai Lun had sympathetically incorporated Nanyin into a larger framework of a six-movement symphony. Lasting almost 80 minutes, the results were revelatory if not totally original.

The first movement, Splendour Of Erythrina City, featured the full orchestra with a stirring choral part sung by the Victoria Chorale and Vocal Consort, sounding like an Oriental version of Orff’s Carmina Burana. However their words were in Mandarin, rather than the authentic Minnanese (Hokkien) dialect, thus detracting from the original premise.

This was more than made up by the appearance of singer Li Bai Yan from the Quanzhou Nanyin Ensemble whose sleight of hand on two sibao (wooden clappers), shaken at two totally different rhythms, was matched by her pristine voice. Heard in the original tongue, the roots, heart and soul of Nanyin came to the fore unequivocally.

In The Magnificent Steeds, a steady gallop rhythm was maintained by the Quanzhou group, dressed in traditional costumes and seated at the highest point on the stage. Wang Da Hao on the dongxiao (a woodwind blown like the recorder) and Zeng Jia Yang on nanpa (a horizontally placed lute) were protagonists for this exquisitely poised and brilliantly paced music.

Through all this and the fourth movement Harmonious Court Music, which conductor Yeh Tsung humorously called “insect music”, the orchestra played sotto voce throughout, exerting an reassuring presence but never overwhelming the delicate balance of instrumental solos. Li’s ethereal voice returned for the fifth movement Celestial Sounds, where the use of echoes and chorus heightened its mystique.

Our nation’s definitive connection with Nanyin was most apparent in the finale Passing On The Ancient Flame, with the Siong Leng Musical Association playing a pivotal role. A song by its late Chairman Teng Mah Seng, Singapore’s foremost Nanyin exponent, was incorporated into the score and Lin Shaoling’s tenor lent a poignant counterpoint to Li’s. The music was decidedly more contemporary with an Indian tabla providing the driving impetus.

There was a grand apotheosis, but the muted ending seemed the more appropriate one. One male speaking voice in Hokkien emerged above a sea of babbling voices, intoning, “I am a Hokkien, so was my father,… and I could never be anybody else,” more or less summed up the sentiment. The journey of music across cultures was now complete.

Another of Singapore's Best Kept Secrets: Singapore Quarry @ Bukit Timah

Another of Singapore's best kept secrets. Its hard to find a spot of peace and quiet within Singapore's hustle and bustle. The old disused Singapore Quarry, on the western face of Bukit Timah Hill provides that kind of respite. And its not too inaccessible, just a one kilometre walk off the Dairy Farm Road entrance or half that distance if you come through Rail Mall (Fuyong Estate).

A view of the Dairy Farm entrance and Hume Heights.

A short history of the Singapore Quarry. Formerly the site of a granite quarry, its now a little lake and artificial wetlands, but a totally peaceful spot for observing natural flora and fauna.

A short board walk and viewing platform.

This artificially created wetlands is a haven for birds too.

A sampling of its flora and fauna includes a lazy monitor lizard out on its midday stroll.

Biggest Summer Annoyance!

The one thing that drives me crazy in the summer.... Mosquito's! Ah! They make me want to scream!! I hate these nasty little things. I swear they follow me around and will attack every inch of me. My grandad used to tell me I must be made of sugar. The bad thing is they are in full force at the lake! Bug spray works okay but still doesn't keep them away! Ever since I was younger I was told to put an ice cube on the bite. It numbs it and stops the itch for a bit. Okay, I will quit rambling .. I just had to get this off my chest! Go away mosquito's!!

Cheers to New York Fleet Week and a safe Memorial Day

At the helm of yet another watery craft, a visiting sailor on shore leave charts a course through Central Park with a new friend. Taken 1943, by Peter Stackpole, courtesy LIFE Images

Cue the Leonard Bernstein!

ILYA RASHKOVSKIY wins 3rd Prize in Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition 2011

Russian pianist ILYA RASHKOVSKIY, who has performed three times in Singapore in recent years, has been awarded 3rd Prize in the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition 2011 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

This is his latest accolade in an already impressive array of competition appearances, including:

1st Prize, Hong Kong International Piano Competition 2005

2nd Prize, Marguerite Long International Piano Competion (Paris) 2002

2nd Prize, Vianna da Motta International Piano Competition (Lisbon) 2010

4th Prize, Queen Elisabeth International Piano Competition (Brussels) 2007

For the record, he performed Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.2 and Mozart's Piano Concerto No.24 in the finals of the Rubinstein Competition.

The final standings were as follows:

1. Daniil Trifonov (Russia) / 2. Boris Giltburg (Israel) / 3. Ilya Rashkovskiy (Russia) / 4. Eric Zuber (USA) / 5. Alexandre Moutouzkine (Russia) / 6. Kotaro Fukuma (Japan)

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2011)

BACH Flute Sonatas (arranged for recorder)
HUGO REYNE, Recorder / Mirare 038 / *****

J.S.Bach wrote a small collection of works for flute with basso continuo accompaniment, spanning over a couple of decades. Unlike his usual sets of six works for other instruments, these were isolated pieces, written for certain performers in mind. The Sonata (BWV.1033) from 1731 was thought to be a joint work by Bach senior and his 17-year--old son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Three of four sonatas in this album and the Suite (BWV.977) are conceived in the four-movement schema of the sonata da chiesa (church sonata), alternating slow and fast movements.

Although transposed for the recorder, these works sound perfectly idiomatic, with Hugo Reyne crafting a totally pleasing tone that soothes the ear. His partners Emmanuelle Guigues (viola da gamba) and Pierre Hantai (harpsichord) make a solid team for these pieces. Listen for the counterpoint in the fugues and the brisk finales, which take the form of lively gigues. These 70 minutes make totally enjoyable listening.

Fantasy in flames: The end of Coney Island's Dreamland

Dreamland's heavenly glow, felled by a hellish fire

Tomorrow (May 27) will mark the 100th anniversary of a very unusual tragedy upon the landscape of Coney Island, a terrible blaze that consumed one of its most popular attractions -- Dreamland amusement park. The swift and destructive fire, occuring just two months after another horrifying conflagration (at the Triangle Factory Fire), is considered by many to be the largest fire in New York history until the 2001 World Trade Center attack.

The nighttime fire started, appropriately enough, at an amusement called the Hell Gate (pictured below) and swiftly spread from one highly flammable structure to the next. By morning, the park was almost entirely destroyed, a charred ruin.

But never fear! Enterprising park owner charged admission for those wishing to view the blackened remains.

And the spirit of morbid curiosity survives! The Coney Island Museum debuts The Cosmorama of the Great Dreamland Fire, "a 360-degree immersive cyclorama" that promises to relive the drama. Visit their website for more information.

ALSO: Check out our two podcasts on the history of Coney Island, especially if you intend to head out there this summer: Coney Island: The Golden Age and Coney Island: 20th Century Sideshow. Download them for free from those links or from our iTunes page for Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive.

Below: The sinister Hell Gate, where the fire started, and the aftermath

All pictures courtesy Library of Congress

Thursday Ramblings

Isn't that so true? President Lincoln was awfully wise!

So did yall see the American Idol finale last night? Congratulations Scotty! I knew he was going to win, I'm so glad! I just love him!! It was an awesome show full of so many amazing performances. Is it just me or was Carrie Underwood looking more gorgeous than ever?! I'm sad the season is over, I was enjoying rooting on Scotty every week! My friend and I may have been slightly obsessed voting the maximum of 50 times each week. Haha, don't judge! Well this is the last day at the beach for me.. Justin and I are about to head to the Lake! I'm excited for the change of pace and can't wait to see my parents. My mom's birthday is today (Happy Birthday Mom!) and we are going to celebrate this weekend! One of my favorite memories growing up at the lake is playing the game of croquet. 

This game is simple and fun but not played too often anymore. You may remember it from Alice in Wonderland. The game is simple: you use your mallet to hit the ball through hoops embedded in the grass. Easy enough right?! I can't wait to get down and play. Some other fun outdoor games I'm sure you are all familiar with include cornhole and ladder ball. Games like these are perfect for all ages and all outdoor occasions. I can't wait to play with the family this weekend! Have a great Thursday!

An afternoon in Johor Bahru

Just a crazy idea of mine to spend an afternoon with my son in Malaysia - Johor Bahru to be exact. Its just a short hop on the SBS 170 service, which crosses the Causeway and deposits you on the Johor side - for good food and inexpensive shopping!

Now is this Singapore's Orchard Road? No. its Johor Bahru's Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, with the humongous City Square shopping centre on the left. Note the HDB apartment blocks in the right background - that's Singapore's Woodlands just across the Causeway. City Square (below) is another of JB's megamalls - lots of shopping to be done.

This is the "new look" of once sleepy Johor Bahru, with lots of construction still going on. The spanking new JB Sentral railway station (below) is an impressive site and sight.

The old Johor Bahru railway station (above) is now dwarfed next to the mega-construction that goes on in the city. A juxtaposition of the new and old, of stainless steel and brick, may be appreciated in this vista (below).

Guess what? The 5.15pm train to Singapore's Tanjong Pagar station has been cancelled. The komputer sistem is still rosak (kaput), apparently on both sides of the Causeway. So its a dreary bus ride back to Singapore, with loads of shopping, and a final view of the Causeway at dusk (below).

Good Things

I finished Fireworks over Tocoa yesterday and can't wait to share with yall! It is by Jeffrey Stepakoff who is a wonderful writer. The style of the book reminds me of Nicholas Sparks. This was an exceptional book! I fell in love with the characters, the setting, the love story- just everything! I'm now ready to move to Georgia, ha. I love the southern charm the main character in the book Lily has. She is a southern girl waiting for her perfect husband is to  return home from the war. Just before his return she meets Jake, a guy with passion that meets her own but not in the same class as her family. Lily has to decide if she is going to follow true love or not. There is a twist in the story but I can't tell you anymore. I just have to advise you to read it! It really is a great summer read, if you have read or and do read it please let me know what you think!

Shag lessons were a success last night! We met so many people and got great advice to help us continue learning the dance! We only got the basic down now but we are ready to continue practicing and expand on our moves haha. (Sometime I get too excited to follow the steps when songs like Carolina Girls and I Love Beach Music come on)

Okay, this is good- but what is up with all these tornadoes recently? It's making me nervous! I am praying for everyone recently affected by the storms. It is just devastating.

One Shoulder Dresses. These are good! Actually these are great! They are in style and everywhere right now. I just love them! I just bought a new coral one shoulder dress and can't wait to wear it out!