PICTURES OF AMERICA / Kam Ning & Albert Tiu / Review

KAM NING, Violin
Esplanade Recital Studio
Tuesday (8 May 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 May 2012 with the title "America, the beautiful tunes".

Considering the major contribution to 20thcentury music by American composers, it was perhaps not a surprise to finally witness an 80-minute violin recital programme devoted to the New World. Notable, however, was the complete absence of works by Ives, Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein. That might have explained the smallish audience, one that was richly rewarded with treats from four Johns and one Charlie.

John Novacek’s Four Rags, composed in 2005, showed how far the ragtime form had evolved from Scott Joplin’s epoch. The rhythms have taken on supersonic turns, distinguished by abrupt shifts in dynamics, dangerous dissonances, with the dances seemingly teetering out of control. Violinist Kam Ning and pianist Albert Tiu kept a tight lid of things, delivering an energetic and exuberant start to their recital.

The ante was upped for Road Movies (1995) by John Adams, whose idea of minimalism was far more than lazily repeating melodic and harmonic patterns ad nauseam. The outer movements, Relaxed Groove and 40% Swing, raced rapidly like the flickering images of a cinema, with a coherence of thematic growth arising from a blur of prestidigitation.

The Four Johns (from L to R): Novacek, Adams, Corigliano & Newton
(the last of whom was a Brit, rather than an American)

It was amazing how the duo were spot on in their coordination, with no notes missed among the bristling multitudes. The central Meditation, in marked contrast, was taken with an indolent and bluesy drawl, with violin and piano echoing each other’s incantations. There can be no more Americanised music than this.

The early Sonata(1963) by John Corigliano, composer of The Red Violin, while sporting its Stars and Stripes origins like a badge, also revealed some continental forebears. The slow movement brooded like a Shostakovich passacaglia while its finale had the joyous swing of a Prokofiev round-dance, delighting in its deliberately placed “wrong” notes.

The fourth John was John Newton, repentant slave-trader whose immortal hymn Amazing Gracewas subjected to a fantastical set of solo variations by Kam. To start, her sumptuous vibrato lent the theme a drone that resembled highland bagpipes and the ensuing hair-raising elaborations brought down the house. Could this have been Paganini’s 25th Caprice?

The few lighter moments was provided by Charlie Chaplin’s Smile from his silent movie Modern Times and the finger snapping encore, William Kroll’s Banjo and Fiddle. Kam and Tiu will be recording this programme on disc for commercial release soon. One can hardly wait.