The Living Room @ The Arts House
Monday (10 September 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 12 September 2012 with the title "Cellists' beautiful tribute to teacher".

Thanks to the glamour and allure of Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline du Pre and others, the cello has become a popular instrument among Singaporean students, its appeal only exceeded by the piano and violin. Its practitioners have also to thank the legacy of teaching, which in pre-Conservatory years was led by Singapore Symphony Orchestra cellists, the most prominent being Mrs Herminia Ilano.

She was the sub-Principal cellist of the national orchestra from 1979 to 1994. She is still teaching and her list of students reads like a Who’s Who of the cello in Singapore today. This enjoyable hour-long concert was presented by four of her most accomplished former students in advance celebration of her 75th birthday in December.

It began with the most famous cello work bar none, Saint-Saëns's The Swan in an arrangement for four cellos. The most senior of the four, Chan Wei Shing, was given the honour of playing its swooning melody. Leslie Tan provided the bass pizzicato accompaniment, while Song Woon Teng and Loke Hoe Kit performed the figurations in between. Then each played a selection of repertoire works in turn.

Chan, an SSO musician and recent conductor of Singapore premiere of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, opened with the first movement of Zoltan Kodaly’s Unaccompanied Cello Sonata. Inspired by earthy Hungarian folk music, this was a deeply-breathed oration that brought out a wealth of emotional extremes. His big vibrato was memorable, as were those passages played sul ponticello, near the bridge, which produced an unnerving edgy metallic sound.

Song, also of the SSO, delighted in the prestidigitation of Czech composer David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. This was more of a gypsy fantasy, closely aligned to Franz Liszt’s own rhapsodies, the melodies (of mostly doubtful authenticity) were liberally quoted and spun out at spellbinding speeds. He was accompanied by pianist Low Shao Ying, who also had cello lessons with Ilano.

Tan, best known as the cellist of the T’ang Quartet, played movements from Bach’s Suites Nos.1 and 4 on a baroque cello. Using gut strings and tuned at a lower pitch than its modern counterpart, a dry but deeply resonant sound was yielded. As the instrument had no end pin (or the “spike”), it was a curious sight to see Tan cradling it with his legs, and holding the bow near its mid-point.

The youngest player was the 24-year-old Loke, one generation younger than the rest and winner of the Lynn Harrell Cello Competition in Texas. With Ilano, he learnt to play Edouard Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D minor. In its Intermezzo movement, he comfortably transitioned between solemnity in the opening and playfulness in its scherzo-like interludes. 

All four cellists returned for the hymn-like Ave Maria by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a veritable song without words, which closed the concert on an emotional high. Its sheer beauty as the broad melody gradually unfolded was the climax of the evening. Ilano had exhorted her musical children to “play with your heart”, and that was exactly what they did.

Mrs Ilano's Cello Family.