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)!