Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Wednesday (28 September 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 September 2011 with the title "Riotous night of Carnival fun".

Whenever one scans lists of players in Yong Siew Toh Conservatory’s concert programmes, it is hard to miss the Vietnamese names. Despite having established music educational institutions of its own, students from our communist Southeast Asian neighbour have been making their mark here, thanks to scholarships from Keppel Corporation. This concert was a way of saying “Thank You” by seven of these students.

Seven was also the number of players in the septets that opened the concert, beginning with Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. The work is unusually scored for flute, clarinet, string quartet, with the harp replaced by the piano. A comfortable balance was achieved by the winds and strings, and even if Chen Yi Huan’s piano was a less ethereal substitute, a sumptuous sound was achieved.

Equally peculiar was the scoring of Saint-Saens’s Septet in E flat major (Op.65) which threw in the trumpet and double-bass into the mix. All ears were on Vu Tien Dat’s resonant trumpet, which stood out from the throng but had the sensitivity to blend into the textures when required.

The music had a curious mix of academism – with fugues to open and close – and folk-like quaintness in its four movements. The work could have sounded dull and uninspired, but the musicians’ sprightly account prevented it from sagging.

The complete list of performers (I wish I could have named all!)

The evening’s highlight was a chamber version of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, with a contemporary narration by Jack Prelutsky memorably read by vice-dean Craig de Wilde. The two pianists Phan Gia Anh Thu and Matthew Mak (Singapore) were able partners who held the fort while the other musicians played musical chairs through its 14 movements.

Each of the starring animals was vividly characterised. Tran Minh Duc’s jet-black double bass was a most convincing Elephant, lumbering and trumpeting his way effortlessly. Violinists Nguyen Ngoc Huy and Dang Viet Ha expertly portrayed the asses, the composer’s sly dig at music critics (hence the Persons with Long Ears). Percussionist Nguyen Duy Anh’s xylophone rattled the bones on the Fossils, and despite a short lapse of concentration, the old tunes rolled on.

Pride of place goes to Trinh Ha Linh’s cello in The Swan, whose seamless legato line was as graceful as the performer herself. The whole band came together for the infectious Finale, which was greeted with a chorus of cheers. This concert will be repeated in Hanoi on Saturday, which is the Viets’ turn to enjoy their Singapore-trained talents.

The article published in The Straits Times carried my errors involving the pianists in the works, but has been rectified for publication on the blog. For the record, Vietnamese pianist Phan Gia Anh Thu performed in both Saint-Saëns works. My sincere apologies to the pianists.

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2011)

BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations
Harmonia Mundi 902071 / ****1/2

Having recorded the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas and Piano Concertos, it was only natural for award-winning British pianist Paul Lewis to tackle the German composer’s longest piano work, the Diabelli Variations. In 1821, the Viennese publisher Anton Diabelli’s had invited all the eminent composers of the time to contribute a single variation on a banal little waltz theme of his own creation. In a typically Beethovenian act of conceit, the irascible genius wrote not one but 33 variations. Its 50 minutes are literally a kaleidoscopic view of the piano and its myriad possibilities.

A certain quirky humour inhabits these short variations, as Beethoven cocks a snook at the various conventions of the time, including himself. For example, Variation No. 22 is a mocking parody on Leporello’s droll aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the hairpin twists and turns he subjects listeners to make them wonder, “What will he think of next?” Lewis has all the technical facility to do this music justice and more. The calmer and more sublime variations, especially No.31 – marked Largo, molto espressivo - however resound with a timeless glow, turning mere period charm into one of ageless beauty. Ardently recommended.

Harmonia Mundi 902078 (CD + DVD) / *****

“The Cello Speaks” is the perfect title for this glorious recording of 20th century music for the accompanied cello. For 82 minutes, the listener is regaled by an instrument that whispers, weeps, sings and soars in wonderfully diverse repertoire. Benjamin Britten’s Third Suite, written for Mstislav Rostropovich, is the most demanding listen. Its nine movements are varied vignettes, short dances based on Russian motifs and capped with an extended Passacaglia. More readily accessible are the Suites of Catalan cellist-composer Gaspar Cassado and Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly, filled with nationalist themes and rhythms of their respective homelands.

Itenerance, by French pianist-composer Pascal Amoyel, Bertrand’s usual chamber music collaborator, opens and closes with a lament accompanied by the cellist’s own haunting voice, book-ending a Jewish dance. This was composed in 2003 and used for a production that recounted the experiences of Auschwitz concentration camp survivors. Bertrand’s voluminous tone and gorgeous vibrato are a joy to behold, and the accompanying documentary DVD is a generous bonus.

Note: The edited ST article on 30 September made Emmanuelle Bertrand out to be a man! My apologies to this wonderful performer who I hope to get to hear in person sometime.

Podcast recommendations: Scamps and Stewardesses

NEWSIES: The Disney film 'Newsies' is notable almost exclusively for giving us a singin', dancin' Christian Bale. But the glowing reviews for the new musical version, which debuted this Sunday at the Papermill Playhouse in Milburn NJ, suggest this version has more to shout about.

Suggested Listening: The original story is based on events which occurred on July 1899, a story we discussed in episode #105, The Newsboys Strike of 1899. [Direct download here]

PAN AM: Hopefully you caught at least one scene in ABC's pastel-colored drama 'Pan Am', the one where the hipster flight attendant (played by Christina Ricci) is whisked off the top of the Pan Am Building over a faithful recreation of Manhattan in 1963. Also lovingly reproduced is the space-age Worldport, Pan Am's UFO-like terminal at Idlewild Airport. If they keep giving us these exacting and glossy reproductions of 1960s New York, then I'll overlook some of the cheesier elements of this low-fat 'Mad Men'.

Suggested Listening: Pan Am World Airways wanted a little glamour to midtown Manhattan, but settled in one of the most controversial buildings to ever set in the skyline. We explore the saga of this much reviled building in episode #61, The Pan Am Building. [Download the special illustrated version of this podcast here.]

Afterwards, check out the history of Pan Am's unusual terminal in our recent show, episode #124 , Idlewild/JFK Airport. [Download here.]

PROHIBITION: The latest Ken Burns mega-documentary series may drive you to drink, for all the right reasons this time. Prohibition begins this Sunday on PBS, the first of three parts exploring one of America's worst ideas ever. Those with an interest in Prohibition-era 'Boardwalk Empire' should make sure they have Tivo.

Suggested Listening: We don't have a podcast on Prohibition yet! However we do discuss the effects of Prohibition on New York's trendiest restaurants and 'lobster palaces' in our history of Times Square, episode #118. [Download here.) And if you want to hear a tale about a very bawdy speakeasy fit for the fall (Halloween) season, give episode #91, Haunted Tales of New York, a listen. One of the 'true' ghost stories features some boozy Greenwich Village revelers who haven't quite left the party....[Download here.)

All of these podcasts are available on iTunes for free download. Look for our two feeds there -- the regular Bowery Boys: New York City History page and the illustrated-episodes feed Bowery Boys Archive, which features our early shows.

Pictures above: Newsies and Prohibition cover courtesy New York Public Library; Idlewild picture courtesy Life Google images.

Me Time

I'm having one of those sun is shining, checking a crazy amount of things off the to do list, perfect coffee kinda day. Thursday's make me happy because until 3 in the afternoon I am free to do whatever I please. Normally I spend my Thursday's running errands, cleaning and catching up on school work. I have several assignments due on Monday but figured I should knock them out because this weekend will be too jam packed to worry about school. I don't know about you but being productive makes me SO happy! There is not a better feeling than checking things off of the to-do list!

Since I am in a very happy mood I wanted to share with you some of the things that are contributing to this wonderful day.

1. First and foremost (and not a thing)

I am so thankful for all of my amazing friends and family. I am at a time in my life where I truly believe God has surrounded me with the best friends I will ever have and the most supportive family I could ask for. I will get to spend time with all of these people together this weekend and I am so thankful.

2. My newest investment: Banana Republic Riding Boots
These aren't the exact ones but they are very similar!
I actually got them in New York but haven't worn
them yet- until today. [insert happy face]

3. My New Coffee Pot
I just bought my first coffee pot that is really mine.
I was spending way too much money at Starbucks and
realized it was finally time to make that big girl step(;

4. Supplies I picked up to make Halloween goodies
I will be sure to post on the final project closer to Halloween!

SEPARATED AT BIRTH? More Positively the Last Classical Musicians and their Lookalikes

Oops, I've done it again. Just could not help it, but here we go again...

Everybody loves the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, especially the Hindus as he has an Afro as luxuriant as Sai Baba.

Still on grandiloquent afros, Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman is more than a match for Sai Baba.

Hair is the subject of interest here, uniting Irish playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw with Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

Now we know why the nickname for pianist-composer Leopold Godowsky was Buddha.

Cult figures who love the rasta hairdo: Composer Meredith Monk, reggae god Bob Marley and pianist Joanna MacGregor.

Doesn't pianist Kathryn Stott look like the Alien-stalking and gorilla-hugging Sigourney Weaver?

Speaking of Aliens, Predators and Pianists, Michigan piano pedagogue Logan Skelton (teacher of Lee Pei Ming and Azariah Tan) is a dead-ringer for the android Bishop played by Lance Henriksen.

SEPARATED AT BIRTH? Positively the Last Classical Musicians and their Lookalikes

Due to popular demand (mainly from myself), I'm back with positively the last group of lookalikes in the classical music world...

Rowan Villazon meets Rolando Atkinson, the perfect voice and face for opera buffo.

Thanks to Singaporean piano teacher Koh Jia Hwei (Mrs Lim Yan), we have the young Dmitri Shostakovich and the young Israeli pianist Shai Wosner vying for the next J.K.Rowling instalment, Harry Potter and the DSCH Star of David.

Conductors and politicians: British band maestro Timothy Reynish and the late British conductor Sir Edward Downes with Singaporean presidential candidate Tan Jee Say. Besides freeing $60 billion for the economy, could his next election platform be to legalise euthanasia?

The German conductor Volker Hartung, out-going conductor of the NAFA Orchestra, is a spitting image of Werner Klemperer, son of legendary conductor Otto, and better known as Kolonel Klink in Hogan's Heroes.

Rowlf, the piano-playing dog in The Muppet Show, was probably modelled after the great pianist Vladimir de Pachmann, who thought that milking cows helped piano technique.

Russian pianist Anatol Ugorsky can certainly play Messiaen, but could he run an office like Dilbert's pointy-head boss?

The man who brought the Force to Esplanade Theatres on the Bay and National Arts Council Benson Phua and probably his favourite Star Wars character, the wise sage Yoda.

Still on the movers and shakers of Singaporean classical music: Singapore National Youth Orchestra chairman Dr Kee Kirk Chin and Singapore Symphony Orchestra director Prof. Lim Seh Chun.

Blonde ambition: Ukraine's Valentina Lisitsa and Kseniia Vokhmianina can certainly bring on piano fireworks, but can Cameron Diaz tickle the ivories?

They could be sisters, Singapore's most talented young musicians: violinist Selina Tang and indie rockstar Inch Chua.

I need advice!

This week has been insane.. my Mondays and Tuesday's have enough packed in them for the entire week. Tuesday's are internship days which are fun but exhausting. Now that I am finally getting to sit down and breathe I can think of things that keep me sane. Like the country club social this Friday and the football game against UNC on Saturday! Yay! I am having some issues however and would LOVE some advice! First item on the agenda is what to wear to the game? I know it isn't until Saturday but I have been trying to figure this out for a good two weeks... It is never too early to plan an outfit for game day! I have so many game day outfits I could pull out but this game is going to be at night time and the low is going to be in the 40's. That is too cold for my little game day dresses! It is the most anticipated game of the season and my parents will be here so it has to be a good outfit. What's a girl to do?? In the past I have gone with a simple scarf to add color.

I just don't know, suggestions would be great! Item two on the agenda is what I should make?! The parents are cooking a full tailgate meal- barbecue and all the fixins. I really want to make something special but I'm just not sure what. I tried an artichoke dip last year and it turned out great. Here are some pinterest inspirations I have had. Do you have any suggestions for the perfect tailgate food?

Any suggestions would be appreciated!!

Opium heaven! Fears of Chinatown, immortalized in print

Reading about Chinatown in classic books like 'Gangs of New York', one gets a sense that certain mysteries and legends about the neighborhood were already firmly in place. And nothing of these gauzy preconceptions arose to the public consciousness more than the problem of Chinatown's opium dens. In fact, no other feature of American Chinatowns would resonate more negatively -- or in the case of 19th century dime novels, more thrillingly.

The sale of opium may been centered in Chinatown, but it wasn't new to New York. It's believed that John Jacob Astor himself, a major trader with the Orient in the 1810s, probably brought Turkish opium to New York. (Edwin G Burrows and Mike Wallace even call him "America's first large-scale drug dealer.") But it was mostly associated with the Chinese that arrived in the 1850s and 60s, men from American western territories who brought it with them among their other unique wares.

Opium was a vice of choice for many white New Yorkers, and many became 'hop fiends', as described by the scandalized press. It was particularly enjoyed by New York's small, continental 'bohemian' class. By the 1890s there were more opium dens outside of Chinatown than in. Many others experienced the drug via its inclusion in laudanum, prescribed for various medical ills but frequently abused. But no matter; the drug's foreign, sinister qualities had turned the Chinatown of popular imagination into a devil's playground.

This was reflected most colorfully in the dime novels of the day. A precursor to the pulp novel and the comic book, the dime novel was obtainable entertainment for regular New Yorker, cheaply written and made, filled with adventures that leapt from the stands due to flashy, often brightly hued covers.

The first of these publications was produced a little over 150 years ago with Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. That first story also set the standard for using 'strange' ethnic lifestyles as the backdrop for adventure.

One of the most enduring characters of late 19th century dime-novel industry was Old King Brady, who cracked down on crime in New York's most vicious and dangerous neighborhoods. Naturally that brought him into contact with Chinatown's opium world.

In many issues of 'Secret Service', Brady and his young companion would rescue helpless women taken captive in an opium den, with chase scenes through the streets of Chinatown. As you can see from the examples below, depictions of Chinatown were broad, racist and wildly inaccurate. The phrase 'heathen Chinee' is often used.

These samples are from the Stanford University collection of dime novels and penny dreadfuls. I highly recommend checking out their website, searchable by themes, including New York street scenes. I've chosen a few below which recognizable place names, but there are literally a couple dozen that are specifically set among the 'Oriental opium world', often in basements or thickly draped parlors. For some reason, there seems to be a trap door in every story!

NOTE: Be careful before reading some of these captions. Needless to say, there's some racially insensitive language included within these old books.

This one in particular seems to revel in the highly stereotypical and sensational image of the 'tong' member with their wielded hatchets. Below it, a depiction of what may be some variation of the Hip Sing Tong (called 'ling' for some reason).

And I won't even hazard a guess to figure out what is happening here!

SEPARATED AT BIRTH? Yet More Classical Musicians and their Lookalikes

I think I'm on a roll, but here are positively the last of classical musicians and their lookalikes... until I think of some more. Many thanks to my friends for some helpful suggestions!

Sargent Bilko (Phil Silvers) has engineered a scam by masquerading as some Russian emigré cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to gain entry into the White House.

Still on cellists, and thanks to Loke Hoe Kit, his teacher American cellist Nathaniel Rosen has fans for the 'tached look in Freddy Mercury and Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen).

Gidon Kremer as Paganini. Top marks to his hair-stylist for making a balding man look positively hirsute.

When Van Cliburn retired from performing, he left Texas for Hawaii 5-0, changed his name to James McArthur, and became immortalised in Steve McGarrett's favourite catchprase "Book him, Vanno."

Should they ever make a movie on the Philadelphia Orchestra years of Wolfgang Sawallisch, they ought to get Jack Nicholson to play the lead.

The secret to leading orchestras, football teams and an entire nation is to develop a high forehead and a strong chin, as Valery Gergiev, Dr Mahathir Mohamed, Robert Casteels and Fabio Capello have demonstrated.

The next movie about Frédéric Chopin has to feature Tartarstani pianist Rem Urasin, himself a finalist in the Chopin International Piano Competition.

A pianist friend suggested that the respected Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo resembled Pee Wee Herman, but I thought he had the eyes of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. It least they love pasta!

Manchester-born organist, pianist and conductor Wayne Marshall must be chuffed that English international Ashley Young just joined the Red Devils.

The difference between sacred and profane: Kam Ning vs Vanessa Mae, both fiddlers. Still wondering if she did the shoot topless...

The resemblance is scary: Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Director Bernard Lanskey and the friendly and cuddly Sully from Monsters Inc.

Since we're still on the subject of furry and cuddly, here's Chewbacca (Star Wars), Harry (Bigfoot and the Hendersons) and Hagrid (Harry Potter). Should they open the Hogwarts Faculty of Magic and Witchcraft on the Kent Ridge campus of NUS, you know who to call...

Maverick cellist and maverick pianist: Singapore's Leslie Tan (T'ang Quartet) and British pianist James Rhodes.

Part 3 of the Musical Hobbits: Conductor Joshua Kangming Tan, pianists James Rhodes and Sergio Tiempo, and cellist Leslie Tan.

Have I gone too far? Or do you want more? Let me know!