CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2012)

RACHMANINOV Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 4
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Malmo Symphony/ Orwain Arwel Hughes
BIS 975 / ****1/2
For some unfathomable reason, the completion of Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa’s Rachmaninov piano concerto cycle has finally been issued despite having been recorded as far back as 1998 and 2001. It also retails at mid-price ($16.90 at HMV), probably in order to avoid directly competing with an ongoing new cycle from the young Russian ace Yevgeny Sudbin. Anyway, the performances are what one already comes to expect from Ogawa: generous, meticulous, scrupulously controlled and refined playing. However these are among the slowest readings in the catalogue. In the First and Fourth Concertos, Stephen Hough (on Hyperion) shaves off two and a half minutes each, while Rachmaninov himself (now on Naxos) is even speedier by a further two minutes!
This does not mean that the playing is sluggish, instead the broad tempos mean that much of the orchestral details are better savoured. In the slow movement of the First Concerto, one hears woodwind passages never previously noticed. Ogawa revels in the contrasts to be found, hot-blooded romanticism in the 1891 maiden effort (later revised in 1917) and a more aggressive and percussive approach to the Fourth Concerto of 1926. She is unfailingly musical in both, and the popular Paganini Rhapsody radiates a warmth that is hard to ignore. While Rachmaninov’s recording of all three works sweeps through in a breezy 71 minutes, this new BIS recording plays for almost 82 minutes. Enjoyable nonetheless.    
TURINA Chamber Music
The Nash Ensemble
Hyperion 67889 / *****
The music of Spanish composer Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) has only begun to gain recognition beyond his single hit La Oracion del Torero (The Bullfighter’s Prayer) of 1926 for string quartet, which closes this very fine anthology of chamber works. Born in Andalusia and schooled in Paris, his music combines the best of both worlds, a distinct Spanish nationalism coloured by the impressionist sensibilities of Debussy and company. Also accomplished as a conductor, he was in the vanguard of Spain’s Silver Age of cultural renaissance before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
Varieties of Spanish songs and dances appear in his First Piano Trio, Piano Quartet and Sonata Espagnola for violin and piano. The music is alternatingly lyrical and rhythmically vibrant without being obviously folksy. Unusually scored is his Escena Andaluza (Andalusian Scenes) for viola and piano quintet which carry influences from his more senior compatriots Albeniz and de Falla. It comprises a serenade-like Crepuscule du soir (Twilight) and A la Fenetre (At the Window), a mellow dialogue between two lovers using themes from the earlier movement. Britain’s exceptional Nash Ensemble lovingly offers over 70 minutes of unmitigated pleasure.

Trend report - Feather mania

Feather jacket from Topshop, Feather shoes from Jimmy Choo, Silver earrings Chan Luu, Pink top with feather peplum from Alexander McQueen, Bag with feather strap from Christian Louboutin, white and black feather jackets from By Malene Birger, Black beaded feather dress from Alberta Ferretti, Beige gala dress from Roberto Cavalli, White swan dress from Marchesa. 

Feathers of all kinds are a big trend right now and are seen on all fashionistas out there. Not only does feathers keep you warm during the cold winter, feathers also keep you looking fabulous at all time. Feathers can be worn on garments such as jackets, dresses, bags, shoes and jewelry. Get creative and start decorating your garments with feathers!

Goblin faces, nutted moguls, loftypops, Gotham chocolates: Vintage Halloween Loft Candy ads from the 1920s

Halloween celebrations may pretty much be cancelled tonight, but you can still enjoy the candy, right?  The Loft Candy Company operated several locations throughout Manhattan in the 1910s-30s, many of them proper restaurants, including one at 251–255 West 42nd Street -- where Chevy's and Regal Cinema are today. Their candy factory was over in Long Island City, Queens, at 40th Avenue and Vernon Boulevard.

Their Halloween advertisements are an interesting window into the customs a century ago. The practice of trick-or-treating would not become acceptable until the 1950s. Children would have celebrated attending Halloween parties instead, where many of the treats listed below would have been served.

Loft survived the Great Depression by acquiring with the bankrupt soda fountain company Pepsi-Cola, popularizing the beverage at their soda fountains.

Enjoy these oddball treats! The ad below is from October 28, 1921:

The Evening World, October 27, 1922

And what the heck are 'National Babies (a filled confection)? From October 25, 1922

"Not since the Great Blizzard!" "Bigger than 1821!" Hurricane Sandy inspires historical superlatives

When things get really, really bad, history provides validation and context.   The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has already inspired newscasters, meteorologists and journalists to reach to the greatest disasters in New York City history for comparison.

These can seem very hyperbolic at times and even a little weird. ('7 Devastating Hurricanes: Where Will Sandy Rank?' as though she were an American Idol contestant.)  It will be days before we really know if this was truly "the greatest disaster in New York history."  But I do think the comparisons can not only bring home the severity of the current situation, they can also bring to life past traumas in a way that no faded black-and-white image ever could.

Here's a few historical comparisons I've heard thus far, and I'm adding a couple of my own, events that popped into mind as I watched some of the terrifying images on television:

Worst Subway Shutdown Ever -- The subways often flood after rainstorms, but snowstorms have also been a menace, particularly the blizzard of 1947 and one in 2006.  However, after Sandy, the MTA declared "The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night.”  Last year's Hurricane Irene was the first time the subway was ever preemptively shut down.  The decision this year proved wise indeed. [source]
Great Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane of 1821 -- The Battery experienced high water levels of 11.2 feet during this 1821 event, still the only hurricane to ever directly hit New York. Last night, water levels surged to 13.88 feet, setting a new, disturbing record. Also known as the Great September Gale.

The Great New York Fire of 1835 -- The images of runaway fires in Queens, mixed with the utter devastation of lower Manhattan, might remind you of the December blaze of 1835 which destroyed hundreds of buildings downtown. However, that exploding transformer on 14th Street -- which caused a blackout to thousands of residents last night -- also recall a series of explosions which occurred in New York in 1845, affectionately called the Great Explosion of 1845.  (Boy, they can really overuse a word like 'great'.)

The Great Blizzard of 1888 -- Sandy forced the shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange for a second day today, although the storm did not flood it, as rumors Monday night proclaimed. This was the first time the exchange has shut down for more than one day since the pulverizing snowstorm of 1888 paralyzed city transportation.

The Rockaway Fire of 1892 -- One of the hardest hit areas in New York was Rockaway Beach, with its boardwalk destroyed and dozens of homes destroyed by fire over in Breezy Point.  The frightening images reminded me of something from our Rockaways podcast from this summer, a great fire which broke out in September of 1892 which destroyed most of the neighborhood of Seaside.

The Big Wind of 1912 -- If contemporary sources are to be believed, the frozen windstorm which struck New York on February 22, 1912, blew at speeds more than double those of Sandy. The 'giant among gales' even stirred up a huge blaze in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and tested the steel of recently built skyscrapers.

The Long Island Express (New England Hurricane of 1938) -- This powerful hurricane slammed into New England and Long Island in September of 1938.  It remains the most powerful storm to ever ravage the New England states.  According to Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, Sandy's barometric pressure ties that of the Long Island storm, at 946 millibars.

The Ash Wednesday Hurricane of 1962 -- Due to the 'Frankenstorm' aspect to Sandy, another metric experts have used is the similarly formed, long-lingering March 1962 storm which hammered North Carolina, New Jersey and Long Island.

Hurricane Andrew 1992 --  Comparisons to this catastrophe are still out, as it's mostly evoked due to the federal government's poor disaster response. Another question left lingering is whether the cost of Sandy will rival that of Andrew, the third most expensive hurricane in American history (after Katrina and Ike).

September 11, 2001 -- Then, of course, due to the shutdown of lower Manhattan, one can't help but recall the attack on the World Trade Center, which actually was the worst thing to ever happen to New York City.

Crane Collapse at 303 East 51st Street 2008 -- Anybody seeing the images of the broken crane which hung precariously at the construction site of One57 on West 57th Street might have remembered the horror which occurred at another midtown Manhattan site just four years ago, a crane collapse on East 51st Street which killed seven people. To this day, the uncompleted building stands as a reminder to this tragedy.

If you've heard any other historical comparisons used on your local newscast, please put them in the comments.

Hope everybody is safe and sound!

I'll update the blog later today with some observation on catastrophic Hurricane Sandy. Tom is one of the thousands on the Manhattan side without power. I'm on the Brooklyn side and fared a little bit better, although I cannot say the same for the many trees on my block.   Be safe today!

Above picture of Jane's Carousel in DUMBO courtesy andjelicaaa's instagram

Eye Candy

There are several popular styles out right now that my eye keeps going back to. Last year I started to see the chambray shirts but thought I couldn't pull it off. This year my mind has changed and I cannot stop looking at them. Here are some of the items I'm currently dreaming about. 

I have  a similar Michael Kors pocket book but I love this style! 

I was tired of polka dots for a while but I guess I'm over it. Love! 

A gingham shirt

A leather watch 

After looking at Pinterest, I don't think I am the only onto eyeing some of these items!! That must just mean we all have good taste(: 

Happy Tuesday! 

2ND PERFORMER'S VOICE SYMPOSIUM: Lee Pei Ming on George Crumb / The Spiritual Journey of John Sharpley



Sunday afternoon was the only day I could attend any of the sessions at the 2nd Performer's Voice Symposium, I did so as some of the talks were given by my musical fraternity friends or about their lives, and also for my own curiosity. Lee Pei Ming, who lectures at the Conservatory, is one of two Singaporeans who perform the music of American composer George Crumb (born 1929). The other one is, of course, Margaret Leng Tan. She had given the Singapore premiere of Crumb's Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music) in 2006 at the Singapore International Piano Festival. From my memory, it was a very absorbing performance as she had worked on the work with the composer himself, besides being a virtuosic pianist herself. In this session, she talked about Crumb, the work and some performance aspects.

The first page of A Little Midnight Music.

Although the work did not require a prepared piano, Pei Ming still needed to strum, scratch and strike the insides of the piano for the required sound effects.

The work is a meditation on Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight, and included quotes from Debussy, Wagner and Richard Strauss. She demonstrated some of these with the help of Thomas Hecht, who depressed the lower keys for her.


The second talk I attended was given by Texas-born pianist Elyane Lassaude, now based in Australia, who spoke on the life and works of the American-Singaporean composer-pianist cum educator John Sharpley. She and John had known each other since young, and she had keenly followed his illustrious composing career over the years and was touched by the spirituality of his music. John is a renaissance man among musicians, and his music reflects his wide knowledge and experience of philosophy, literature and Asian cultures and religions. Yet he retains a quintessential American aesthete and all-encompassing outlook in his output. A number of pivotal works were cited, excerpts of which were heard. As it was impossible to have covered everything within 45 minutes, perhaps a separate symposium be held to discuss his music in greater detail sometime in the future. 

People who attended included students, teachers, performers, composers and writers.  

To round up the session, Elyane Laussade performed John Sharpley's Singapore Blues, a work reminiscent of Copland and Barber, but with a Malay-flavoured twist towards the end.

Hearty cheers from the composer (extreme left) himself.

BEETHOVEN PIANO CONCERTO NO.4 / Orchestra of the Music Makers / Review

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Sunday (28 October 2012)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 October 2012 with the title "An enjoyable musical experiment".

It all started with the idea of an experiment; a young orchestra working with an experienced professor and concert pianist in a repertoire work in which the novice players had never previously encountered. With only one prior rehearsal, and one public discussion in front of symposium delegates, a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto was ready to go.

All this suggests sure-fire recipes of an impending disaster, but reality was kinder. Before the performance began, the Queensland-based piano pedagogue Stephen Emmerson briefly elucidated on the interpretation of the work’s second movement. Although it is Beethoven’s shortest concerto movement, it is also his most evocative.


The stark music was a representation of Orpheus taming the Furies on his passage to the Underworld, with singing that soothed the wounded breast. It was with this notion in mind that instructed the concerto’s opening bars, unusually played by solo piano. Emmerson entered with a rolled G major chord, a liberty taken that seems to replicate notes played on a lyre, and his brief solo was taken at a deliberate and leisurely pace.

Then the strings quietly registered in a remote B major, possibly one of Beethoven’s boldest and most inspired gambits. This sense of apparent disorientation catches the ear, but soon the orchestra settled comfortably into what is regarded his interpretatively most challenging concerto.

Unlike the Thirdor Fifth Concertos, the Fourth has a relatively un-showy piano part that is so well integrated with the orchestra and doubly difficult to pull off. In places, Emmerson struggled and stumbled, but the pace of the work never faltered, the orchestra expertly kept on track by conductor Chan Tze Law’s direction.


Comparisons will be made with The Philharmonic Orchestra’s recent Beethoven cycle, and it has to be said that Lim Yan’s technique was far more secure than this rough and ready account. Like Lim, Emmerson played his own very well written cadenzas for the outer movements. The first movement cadenza worked on decorative figures and subsidiary themes idiomatically while the finale’s was brief, cogent and attention grabbing.

Remarkable also was the seating arrangement, which had the pianist facing both conductor and audience, and surrounded by woodwinds. Given one or two to a part, the winds were in effect secondary soloists, and were accorded that distinction. They acquitted themselves well, contributing to the overall successes of the performance.

Admission was free to this Performer’s Voice Symposium concert, but the audience was in no way made to feel like guinea pigs in this musical trial. They, this listener and the young musicians mostly enjoyed themselves, suffering no side effects along the way.   


Get inspired to transform your homes

Via Hwtf

Interior stylist Hilary Robertson is known for her way to turn odd object to something that is really pleasing for the eye and useful for the everyday home. She is the type of creative person that can turn a trash can or a birdcage into gorgeous chandeliers and she is a master of using the staple gun to magically transform a saggy couch. She herself calls her technique "Upholsery sauvage". 
The Stylish Outlaws are deeply inspired and have a sudden need to get creative with our own homes.  If we all take a look around in our homes I bet there is a lot of things that have served its purpose and is ready to turn into something new and useful. We are creative but we should really need Hilary Robertson to teach us a few things.  


Colin Currie (Percussion)
Joe Burgstaller (Trumpet)
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Saturday (27 October 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 October 2012 with the title "Pitch-perfect percussions".

The Second Performer’s Voice Symposium at the Conservatory has sprung forth some unusual concerts and this evening’s tandem of percussion and trumpet recitals was the most wide-ranging of all. The Scotsman Colin Currie is possibly the world’s most famous solo percussionist after his compatriot Scotswoman Dame Evelyn Glennie, and is no less prodigious.

Given that percussion is history’s oldest group of musical instruments, its sound is universal and the first three works in Currie’s recital – by Elliott Carter (USA), Per Norgard (Denmark) and Toshio Hosokawa (Japan) – seemed to coalesce as one. Beginning with the mellow marimba, he soon worked his way to the brighter vibraphone and a bewildering array of unpitched percussion awaited.

His rapid-fire responses on the mallets made for an acrobatic display of adroitness which built up to massive crescendo. Returning to the marimba for Hosokawa’s Reminiscences, the low registers droned and rumbled, and one sitting close enough would have experienced the vibrations in harmony with its reassuring tones.  

Currie closed with British composer Dave Maric’s Trilogy, an eclectic three-part work of disparate inspirations with sampled percussion and amplification augmenting the live performance. The second movement Pelogy skilfully employed the Javanese pelog scale without actually sounding like a gamelan, while the eccentric minimalistic beat of Tamboo rounded off an exhilarating display of all-round virtuosity.

American trumpeter Joe Burgstaller helmed the second recital, and opened with Rafael Mendez’s arrangement of Monterde’s Virgin of the Macarena, a stunning showpiece where the technique of circular breathing to maintain implausibly long passages was employed. A former member of the legendary Canadian Brass, he relived its trademark humour as he played and spoke.

For Astor Piazzolla’s tango Oblivion, he was joined by a brass quartet formed by members from the Singapore Symphony and Malaysian Philharmonic. For once, this popular number rang out with an elegiac quality as it should, much like the Afro-American spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, which soulfully sang the blues.

A highlight was the World Premiere (above) of Malaysian-American composer Su Lian Tan’s Ming, an evocation of Chinese brush-painted landscapes, its placid waters, gnarled trees, rugged mountains and soaring birds. Partnered by pianist Low Shao Suan, this atmospheric score ambled from impressionistic half-lights to a Messiaen-like timeless calm. Burgstaller’s part used the mute liberally, to tamper the bluesy timbre before going full voice on a song.  

For sheer variety, a Vivaldi-Bach concerto, Duke Ellington’s Echoes of Harlem and an encore where the audience provided a drone (surprisingly in tune!) to Burgstaller’s soliloquy completed the evening’s fine entertainment. 

THE MUSIC OF PICTURES / SCARLATTI-CAGE / T'ang Quartet and Melvyn Tan / Review

T’ang Quartet / Melvyn Tan
2ndPerformer’s Voice Symposium
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Friday (26 October 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 October 2012 with the title "Music with Picasso's beady eyes gazing from behind". [Seriously, I do not know who comes up with such ridiculous titles to these reviews. Certainly it wasn't me.]

Concerts and recitals are part and parcel of the Performer’s Voice Symposium, organised by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, which delves into various perspectives of a musician and performer’s art of expression. Quite academically and prosaically, these have been referred to as Plenary Performances, but that did not prevent a fairly large turnout to witness two separate recitals by the T’ang Quartet and pianist Melvyn Tan.

The T’angs are no strangers to contemporary music and inter-disciplinary collaborations. Projected images of Pablo Picasso paintings accompanied the quartet’s performance of living American composer Ned Rorem’s Fourth String Quartet (1994). Comprising ten short movements, each dwelled on the iconic Spanish artist’s pictures, from driving ostinatos (Minotaur), tender cantabiles (Child Holding A Dove), to fast fleeting arabesques (Three Nudes).

OK, so Picasso has those beady eyes. And so what?

Their playing, incisive and vividly projected as always, would have characterised each piece sufficiently well, but the added visual dimension helped cement the multiple stimuli to the senses. For example, in the movement titled Self Portrait, Leslie Tan’s declamatory cello solo – intense yet inward-looking – took on a harder edge with Picasso’s beady eyes peering on from behind.

The quartet then played Baudime Jam’s contemporary accompaniment to the Buster Keaton 1921 silent movie The Haunted House, a slapstick comedy that had the audience mostly in stitches. The music was suitably light-hearted, played in sync throughout, with occasional in-jokes like the quote from Chopin’s Funeral March for the scene with men dressed as skeletons.

The specifications of John Cage's prepared piano for his Sonatas and Interludes.
After the interval, Melvyn Tan took to the stage with an unusual juxtaposition of Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage Sonatas. Although Scarlatti’s sonatas were originally written for the harpsichord, the piano with its sustaining pedal rendered each with a bell-like resonance and a whole plethora of new sonic textures. Tan was also unabashed in making them sound romantic and modern.

The 16 Sonatasand 4 Interludes (1946-48) by Cage were inspired by the East and scored for the prepared piano, a normal grand piano augmented with screws, wedges, plastic sheets and rubber erasers inserted between strings to transform the timbres completely. The result was a gamelan-like percussive sonority redolent of bells, gongs and drums in addition to the piano’s original sound.

Barely rising beyond pianissimo, Tan’s command of the keyboard, now a one-man-band, was a tour de force of control and restraint. Each sonata took on a life of its own, rhythmic and hypnotic in part, but always absorbing. Sonatas XIV and XV were choreographed with a balletic grace, every ping and thud from the instrument registering like dance-steps in forward motion. All that was missing were the ballerinas. The applause was long and sustained. The late John Cage, born exactly 100 years ago, must be smiling somewhere.

The insides of a prepared piano. Note the screws, rubber wedges, plastic sheets and an eraser (extreme right)!


ExxonMobil Campus Concerts
University Cultural Centre
Tuesday to Thursday (23-25 October 2012)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 27 October 2012 with the title "Bask in a breathtaking piano landscape". 

The Joy of Piano, Singapore’s only free international piano festival, brought together three talented young pianists in challenging recital programmes that could rival the established Singapore International Piano Festival. They were united by having won top prizes at the Hong Kong International Piano Competition, organised by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong, as well as other major awards.


In the Russian Ilya Rashkovskiy, who opened the festival, one found an interpreter par excellence of Russian repertoire in the mould of legends Richter and Gilels. In Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata, he negotiated a treacherous tightrope between bittersweet melancholy and lacerating violence with a cool steely resolve. In commanding control throughout, he also yielded poetry from Rachmaninov’s clangourous Second Sonata through its dense thickets of notes.

Breathtaking virtuosity aside, lyricism was breathed into Schubert’s desolate Impromptuin C minor and seemingly hackneyed Chopin began to resound anew. The Second Ballade and “Heroic” Polonaise could often be reduced to a mass of loud clichés, but the passion Rashkovskiy instilled into these warhorses both inspired and invigorated. His seamless legato singing line in the Nocturne in D flat major (Op.27 No.2) was also one to die for. 


Wednesday evening saw an equally trenchant response from Hong Kong’s Colleen Lee, an epitome of feminine grace whose lithe stature belied a big sound and enormous reserves. There was whimsy and fantasy to Schumann’s little Arabeske, while world-weariness coloured the Fantasy in C major, with a share of wrong notes in the treacherous second movement as if to prove the point.

Her overall vision and conception was never in doubt, volatile and excitable in Chopin’s Second Scherzo and displaying a kaleidoscopic range of moods and colours for the 24 short Préludes of Op.28. The journey was eventful and highly personal, one that revolved around the “Raindrop” Prélude, where time stood still for a full five minutes. The coruscating final number in D minor was the perfect a jolt to the senses, delivered with stunning panache.


On the final night, Italian Giuseppe Andaloro played what must have been the most unusual recital thought possible. Completely eschewing classical and romantic repertoire, baroque and 20thcentury music held sway. In Frescobaldi’s Partita on La Follia, harpsichord-like ornamentations on the Steinway grand astonished as well as delighted, while his view of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne traversed dynamic extremes, from tinkles of a music box to thunderous organ sonorities. 

The keyboard wizardry continued in the contemporary works, where impressionistic hues of Messiaen’s Préludes sat easily with the bald dissonances of Bartok’s Suite Op.14 and syncopations of Stravinsky’s Tangoand Ligeti’s Two Capriccios. Four of Kapustin’s free-wheeling Études, played with a fearless disregard of their complexities, brought down the house. The capacity audience, rewarded with two further encores, was clearly captivated and basking in the joy of outsized pianism

The Joy of Piano is part of the ExxonMobil Campus Concerts Series and was generously sponsored by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong. All photographs courtesy of NUS Centre for the Arts.