George Bellows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A must-see rumination on New York City's abrasive beauty

George Bellows: Retrospective
Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 15, 2012-February 18, 2012

George Bellows was a member of the Ashcan School, the New York-centered realist art movement of the early 20th century. The so-called 'Apostles of Ugliness' -- at least, according to critics -- included John Sloan, Robert Henri and eventually Edward Hopper. Even the photography of Jacob Riis is considered indicative of the bold Ashcan style.  Bellow's painting, in particular, are representative of the movement, using dramatic, almost geometric styling to depict everyday settings that were raw, lurid and sometimes unsettling..

But after a century of photography and film and decades of modern art, Bellows work now seems rather far from real, almost hallucinogenic. A romantic abstraction, the manipulation of light to evoke the senses of the flesh. The imperfections of his subjects, while sometimes ghastly, are flawless ones.

That was my personal impression of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's amazing new retrospective of the work of George Bellows, a stunning collection of oil paintings and drawings, most steeped in the rough and tumble of early 20th century New York City.

His subjects include lean boxers in the basement of Sharkey's Saloon on the Upper East Side, naked East River swimmers, fiery preacher Billy Sunday (Bellows paints Sunday's upper Manhattan revivals), strolls along Riverside Park, and the excavations of Penn Station. Collected together, you'll notice many of the images derive their motion from confident broad strokes, slightly distorted and blurred body frames, and a framework that's almost photographic.

My favorites surprised me with their use of radical light, like his blinding-white winter scene in Battery Park (below) and his stark-green, twisted views of a Newport, R.I., afternoon. The show makes a point of keeping his weirdest work -- inspired by not-quite-true stories of World War I atrocities -- confined to one room.

Bellows did seek to expose the ruddiness and chaos of urban life, but it wasn't just for its inherent ugliness that he found it so irresistible. It's no surprise to find that his home and studio at 146 East 19th Street happens to be on the so-called "Block Beautiful," Gramercy Park's most diversely gorgeous street. There's even a painting of his elegant home, with his printing press clearly seen on the top floor.

Bellows died prematurely in 1925 at age 42 at the height of his talents, abundantly clear in the exhibition's final room. It literally feels like an unfinished show, not by fault of the museum, but at the clear superiority of the final paintings.

I still personally think John Sloan is New York City's greatest painter, but, thank you Met, you've almost changed my mind.

By the way, there's another new show with a connection to New York City history you should check out while here -- African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde.

THE LAST GREAT STRIKE by Clement Mesenas / Review


Clement Mesenas
Marshall Cavendish Editions
$21.40 at Popular Bookstore
Singaporeans of an older generation might remember this incident (I certainly did not, as I was only six-years-old then), and given the hot topic of the SMRT bus drivers’ industrial action that has been dominating the front pages of dailies today, this blow-by-blow account of the 1971 The Straits Times journalists strike could not have come at a better time.
On 23 December 1971, two thousand unionised employees of The Straits Times held an 8-day sit-in, dealing a crippling blow to the might and prestige of Singapore’s leading broadsheet. The 6-year-old nation had just gained its independence, the British army had left, but its dominant English daily was still in the hands of a cabal of colonials, whose lavish expatriate lifestyle, stiff-upper-lip and high-handed ways were out of touch with its local employees.
How it all came to a head is eerily similar to the SMRT Chinese nationals’ complaints of today – poor working conditions (lack of typewriters being particularly rankling), poor pay ($400 a month (!!!) for young journalists), lack of bonuses (aha!), the unsympathetic and uncaring attitude of management (aha again!), and loss of human dignity (triple aha!). 
The action was led by a group of journalists of the SNUJ (Singapore National Union of Journalists) referred to as the Young Turks (of whom the author was one), who given their straitened circumstances, had little to lose anyway. Not always supported by their seniors, who were either stricken by resigned obeisance or aiming for management positions themselves, they forged their way into history. Well co-ordinated and quietly aided by the government and NTUC (those were the days when there was much suspicion between mass media and City Hall, but now it is strictly controlled), the strikers dealt a series of calculated blows.    
First, their work-to-rule routine (just do the minimum, nothing more and only less) starved The New Nation, the afternoon tabloid. Then they delayed production of the papers, before escalating to a full-scale strike, with demonstrations, marches, slogans, placards and sabotage of equipment (the symbolic cutting of typewriter ribbons), mostly peaceful and quietly observed by the police.
So there were no papers for a staggering eight days, and any news of the action was under-reported or hushed up in the media. It was a sobering moment for Singapore, a developing nation anxious to court foreign investment by maintaining a pristine and squeaky clean image of law and order. Nobody was charged by the police, the ancien régime of the Brits had been brought to its knees (and soon to be replaced by locals), and manpower and work reforms were later put in place. A positive outcome, one supposes.
Mesenas cuts to the chase in the opening chapter, and the story unfolds as rapidly as labour relations deteriorate. His account of the events and its dramatis personae are breezy, and this book can be read in a single uninterrupted sitting. One clearly sides the journos as heroes of the day, but it would have been also interesting to hear from the side of their antagonists, the late and hard-nosed ST managing director A.C. Simmons, general manager Ronald Scott (roundly jeered by the strikers), or the unpopular personnel manager Rubin Haja Mohiddeen (still alive and kicking as the High Commissioner to New Zealand).  
Also interesting is Mesenas’s memories of early 1970s Singapore (some of which I do remember) and the antiquated processes which went into producing the morning papers before the days of cellular phones, computers, electronic mail and the Internet. It was also curious to note that the paper operated from two cities, Singaporeand Kuala Lumpur, and a physical exchange of flongs (printing moulds) would take place midway in Batu Pahat (Johore) at seven every evening!      
Some proofreading might have helped so that veteran journo Sit Yin Fong's name does not appear as Sit Ying Fong. And I believe that the beer garden of Tivoli (a popular meeting place at a now-demolished building called The International) was located where The Paragon stands now, rather than Lucky Plaza.   
There is a Machiavellian twist at the end of the story, which I shall leave for the reader to find out for himself or herself. As for the present, this absorbing piece of Singaporehistory may now be referred to as “The Previous Last Great Strike”.
The dramatic photographs are from the book. Buy it!

Singaporean Soldier Wins Asia-Pacific International Chopin Piano Competition in Daegu, South Korea


It is well known that many young Singaporean men find it an obstacle to pursue a professional musical career because their musical studies are inevitably disrupted by compulsory military national service which takes up two years of their formative lives. That is not to mention life as an NSman (or reservist) for 13 years post-National Service, if they happen to be medics, signallers or holding vocations unrelated to the Music and Drama Company.

Because of this, some Singaporean musicians, notably pianist Melvyn Tan, had defaulted on National Service in order to pursue an uninterrupted musical careers overseas. (He was later arrested when he returned to Singaporein 2005 to visit his ageing parents, and had to pay a fine in addition.) 

However in October this year, Shaun Choo, a 21-year-old Singaporean soldier serving his national service as an Administrative Support Assistant (Rank of Corporal) in the Signals Headquarters of the Singapore Armed Forces, won 1st prize at the 2nd Asia-Pacific International Chopin Piano Competition in Daegu, South Korea.

Shaun Choo disrupted his studies at the Salzburg Mozarteum (where he studied with the late eminent pedagogue Karl-Heinz Kämmerling) to perform national service in 2011. After completing Basic Military Training, he found time to practise the piano and accumulated sufficient leave in order to participate in Chopin Competition in Korea. He even had enough leave to complete a concert tour in Polandafter his win. Choo is grateful to his army unit and its officers for supporting his dream to perform the piano. He is a good example of how true artistry is compatible with military duties, and what one can achieve when you put your mind to it despite the seemingly overwhelming odds. 

Julian Fellowes 'Gilded Age', New York's 'Downton Abbey': Some suggestions and a few pipe dreams

It's a different world: Illustrating the difficulty of a New York TV show set in the 1880s, above is a picture of the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The Reservoir is off to the left, where the New York Public Library is today. More on this photo here.

Ever since the announcement that 'Downton Abbey' creator Julian Fellowes would be developing a show for NBC about 1880s New York, blogs have been excitedly speculating its contents. Will 'The Gilded Age' be have the same 'Upstairs Downstairs' dynamic that informed Fellowes' Oscar-winning script for 'Gosford Park'? Will it feature real-life New Yorkers like Alva Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan? Which American actress will be cast in a Maggie Smith-like dowager role? (Leading candidates may include Susan Sarandon, Cherry Jones and -- if she can be wrested away from 'American Horror Story' -- Jessica Lange.)

This era is ripe for proper television treatment but, with its degree of difficulty, could easily run afoul of mediocrity. Some things hopefully show creators will consider:

-- Don't skimp:  The 1880s is one of the more formative decades of New York history. It exists mostly in fantasy, as only a few notable buildings from before this period still exist, and many of New York's grandest structures were just being constructed (Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, among others). The tallest building in New York was the Equitable Building at a whopping seven floors. (I mentioned the Equitable in my post on the Williamsburg fire, as it burnt to the ground in 1912.) New Yorkers got around by elevated railroad and streetcar. They spent a Saturday afternoon strolling upon the Reservoir and or visiting the newly built Metropolitan Opera House near Herald Square.

None of this can depicted cheaply. My only solid gripe about BBC America's 'Copper' was its obviously low budget comparative to the scope they were intending to capture. If you're going to call something 'The Gilded Age', the world needs to feel opulent. (Even if the phrase, as coined by Mark Twain, was meant to evoke high society without depth.)

-- Don't film in Burbank. Or London. Or Toronto:  Even though the big set pieces will be created by matte painting and CGI, New York still enjoys hundreds of brownstones from this period, literally begging to be used.  There are dozens of historic districts in New York; just edit out the Dunkin Donuts on the corner, and you're set! Do not make the 'Mad Men' mistake of thinking you can create an iconic vision of New York someplace else.

-- Cast authentic faces, not big stars:  Okay, sounds like an expensive show so far. The good news is that Fellowes has a huge following, and the show is concept driven. Outside a pivotal star or two, pull together a great list of actors from New York's huge acting pool that actually fit the part -- in comportment, body shape or profile. Handsome men then didn't look like Taylor Lautner. If you're casting for stunning beauties, hold up a picture of Lillian Russell (who arrived on the New York scene in 1885), not Kristen Stewart. Above: Ms. Russell in 1885

-- Consider changing the title:  I like 'The Gilded Age' but perhaps it's a little too on-the-nose. And there's already a satirical classic with that title. (Although that didn't stop 'Nashville'.) One of the pleasures of 'Downton Abbey' is that it's rooted to an actual place, providing gravity to an ever-centrifugal drama.  Perhaps find the same in New York. (This saves money too.) 'Fifth Avenue'? 'Madison Square'? The Villard Houses were built in 1884. Wouldn't that be a perfect setting? I mean, if it's good enough for Gossip Girl....

Too bad a most perfect title 'The 400' -- the name of Mrs. Astor's high society social circle -- conjures up images of a non-existent sequel to '300' full of sweaty gladiators.  And if you decide to chuck the high society thing and go all gritty, may I suggest 'The Tenderloin'?

-- Watch 'Boardwalk Empire':  The world of Fellowes' new show is going to have to interact with the real world even more than 'Downton Abbey' does. And while Martin Scorsese's HBO drama about 1920s Atlantic City feels narratively distant -- sometimes it's unforgivably boring -- it does incorporate historical figures into its storyline surprisingly well. It's not an easy thing to do, making melodramatic historical figures into flesh-and-blood characters, but that's been one of Boardwalk's more successful accomplishments.

-- The temptation of the Astors vs. the Vanderbilts: You can't touch upper crust Manhattan of the 1880s without discussing the old school Astors and the new money Vanderbilts, whose families collided in the narrow New York social sphere of the era. But it may be more prudent to watch this clash of style from an adjacent family, either real or fictional.

-- The potential of wacky supporting characters:  Now I'm just being a total New York geek here, but in the periphery of such a show, one could find an excellent assortment of extraordinary oddballs. The 1880s had no shortage. Perpetual mayoral candidate Henry George, industrialist Peter Cooper and preacher Henry Ward Beecher in their final years, faded icon of scandal Victoria Woodhull, cigar-chewing Fifth Avenue Hotel power player Roscoe Conkling and the young, genius gadabout Stanford White.

-- And don't just stay in New York: There's Saratoga! Newport! Tuxedo Park! Manhattan Beach! Long Island's Gold Coast!

All right, so maybe I've just budgeted the show out of existence. Anyway, here's hoping for a drama as heartfelt and as addictive as 'Downton Abbey'.

Stine Goya designs a collection for Weekday

In the end of November we all have something to look forward to; Stine Goya designs a collection for Weekday. The collection is called Fade to W and is a new brand that Weekday created where different designers gets to design their own collection them. The only thing that is significant about the Fade to W collection is that it has a feminine edge to it, no matter who is designing it. 

Christmas Shopping Side tracked

Tis the season y'all! 
It's the season to give, which means the season to shop. 

It's no surprise that this girl loves to shop. I can't help but to instantly get a "mood lift" every time a good purchase(or deal) has been made. Along with shopping though also comes the downfall of "should I really have spent that money? probably not.. Did I really need that? ..not really" which can be a  bit of a buzz kill if you ask me. Lucky for us, It's the season to shop shop shop and not feel so guilty! I absolutely LOVE picking out gifts for loved ones this time of year. Unfortunately, shopping for a mother, grandmother, sister and friends I am all too often in girly shops where the temptation to make purchases for myself is stronger than ever.  Does anyone else get side tracked when Christmas shopping? I always seem to find something for myself in the process, ha. 

During the black Friday shopping rush I scored a few items that I have been extremely happy with! 

1. Cheetah flats
These aren't the exact ones but very similar 

2. the softest neutral color sweater 
(once again, not the exact one but similar) 

3. Mint/Teal statement necklace 

Hopefully I can make it through the rest of my holiday shopping without splurging on myself. I am happy with these items though! 

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2012)


The Early Recordings 1939-1948
Naxos Historical 8.111351 / *****

The legendary Italian Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) was one of the great enigmas among modern-day pianists. His extra-musical exploits could fill a book, including stints as medical student (he graduated), wartime pilot, member of the anti-fascist resistance and sometime Ferrari racing-car driver. These early recordings from His Master’s Voice (Italy) and Telefunken reveal a different personality from the cool and clinical persona of his later Deutsche Grammophon recordings. Bach’s Italian Concerto (recorded in 1943) finds him generous and whole-hearted. Hidden voices are revealed and he even doubles with quite outrageous octaves in its final Presto.

There is grandeur and warmth in the Bach-Busoni Chaconne (1948), and this thread of high-flying virtuosity continues in Brahms’s Paganini Variations (1948). Here he combines both books, drops a few variations and closes splashily with the latter half of the 14th Variation of Book One in a single sweep. Only he can get away with such liberties, and convincingly too. One pleasure of this anthology is his way with miniatures; four Scarlatti Sonatas and rarities by 18th century Italians, Pellegrino Tomeoni and Baldassare Gallupi are lovingly included. There is also special place for Spanish shorts by Albeniz, Mompou and Granados. Has the latter’s Andaluza (Spanish Dance No.5) received a more tantalising or teasing performance? On the strength of this disc, Michelangeli was truly one of the immortals.   

Orchestra of the Music Makers / ****

You can only be young once, and when that time passes, one can look back either in regret or gratitude. The latter definitely applies to fourteen-year-old Singaporean treble Matthew Supramaniam, presently a musical scholar at Eton College (Windsor), who was the indisputable star in Mark Chan’s Flight of the Jade Bird at this year’s Singapore Arts Festival. His voice has just broken, but this album of nine songs recorded just a few months ago at The Arts House captures the purity and innocence of evanescent youth.

Some Christmas favourites such as Adolphe Adam’s O Holy Night and Franz Xaver Gruber’s Silent Night lend the selections a festive flavour. These he sings with much love and thoughtfulness, his high registers ringing with a sonorous beauty especially for Mendelssohn’s anthem Hear My Prayer (O for the Wings of a Dove). His voice is also well-suited for the lyrical simplicity of Mozart, as in the Agnus Dei (Coronation Mass) and Voi che sapete (The Marriage of Figaro). In the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria and John Rutter’s The Lord Bless You and Keep You, he is partnered by Cultural Medallion winning violinist Lynnette Seah and sensitive young harpist Laura Peh. The recorded sound is very reverberant and gives the proceedings a dreamy feel.   

This CD is available at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra Esplanade pushcart on concert evenings. Proceeds go to the Community Chest, SINDA and restoration of the Victoria Concert Hall pipe organ.

A JOLLY ROYAL BALL / Scenes from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra Annual Dinner

Long service awards. Maestro Lan Shui has been with the SSO for 15 years now!

Classical musicians always appear very serious on stage, so it is always a refreshing sight to see them letting down their collective hair and being themselves, even for a single evening. The annual dinner of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra family was held at the Conrad Centennial Singapore on 27 November, and it was a chance for members of the SSO family to get together and have a ball of a time. This year's theme was A Jolly Royal Ball, with a theme of being all things British. That would explain the many Union Jacks, fish and chips, bread pudding, and references to the Beatles that dominated the evening's rather unclassical entertainment.

The best dressed, as voted by the dinner guests were harpist Gulya Mashurova and Concertmaster Sasha Souptel.

The evening's entertainment was provided by the orchestra's Fab Four, playing on  instruments they don't usually play  on the Esplanade stage. Librarian Lim Yeow Siang belted out the vocals, supported by percussionist Mark Suter and tuba player Hidehiro Fujita on electric guitar, and double-bassist Wang Xu on drums!

A Hard Day's Night. 

Concertmaster Sasha Souptel, Mrs Charlotte Goh and Maestro Lan Shui. 

Board and Committee members: Lionel Choi, Professor and Mrs Lim Seh Chun (the only board member who has actually played as a member of the orchestra), Artistic Advisory Committee member and critic Mervin Beng, Su Pin and YST Orchestra conductor Jason Lai.
The Chans with power company. Cellist Chan Wei Shing, soprano Jeong Ae Ree of New Opera Singapore with Mrs Goh Chok Tong, Violinist Chan Yoong Han, Marketing Comms Manager Cindy Lim with Borard member Chng Hak Peng.

Concertmasters with their partners. Sasha Souptel with Masako Suzuki, and Lynnette Seah with re-elected "US President  Barack Obama".

The Cool Crowd (SSO past present and future): Gillian Wong, Amy Yuen, Tang I Shyan, Jason Lai, Tan How Pang and Jenny Ting. 

A giant Coke bottle atop the Empire State Building? Almost.

Did you see the spectacular debut of the Empire State Building's new LED lights last night, choreographed to the music of Alicia Keys, being simultaneously broadcast on four New York radio stations?


 The allure of the Empire State Building as a glamorous light spectacle has been around almost since the mast -- originally designed, but never used, as a mooring mast for zeppelins -- was raised in 1931.

Nearby Times Square was bathed in the light of neon advertisement, and its master of manipulation was lighting designer Douglas Leigh.  The iconic beacon would have been irresistible to Leigh, and in 1941, he proposed for the top of the Empire State something that would have been easily his most ambitious, most striking lighting display to date -- an illuminated bottle of Coca-Cola.

According to author John Tauranac, the famous curvaceous bottle would have sat along the spire, changing color based upon the weather. It was one of several potential Empire State Building/Coke tie-ins planned, including a Coke-sponsored performance by the orchestra of Andre Kostelanetz performed at the top, broadcast nationwide on the radio. Coke products would have featured "a small guide to decipher the colors."

The Empire State Building could have used this publicity at this time, as owners were scrambling to fill vacancies within the building. With Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and dozens of other towers now constructed, midtown Manhattan was experiencing a glut of office space.  A Coke sponsorship would have given the Empire State Building free publicity, not to mention sizable rental fees.

Below: Leigh's famous smoking Camel ad in midtown Manhattan. The Empire State Building can be seen up in the corner.

But Leigh's timing was terrible; even as the plan was being drafted, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and America entered World War II.  During the war, there would be no lights at all atop the building or in its upper floors.

A few years later, in July 1945, a B-25 bomber would crash into the Empire State Building, killing the pilot and several within the building. More amazing facts about that tragic accident here.

Leigh never gave up his dream of transforming the Empire State Building. After the war, Leigh told Life Magazine he wanted to put a gigantic, lighted cigarette on the building. [source]  Many decades later, Leigh would finally get his chance -- albeit without product placement -- designing a new, colorful lighting system  in time for the country's 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

Williamsburg in flames: Explosion on the East River 1912, and a test for the five-borough fire department

The Williamsburg waterfront was a wall of industry over one hundred years ago and of a most combustible kind.

Manhattan had waterfront industry as well, but it was leveraged with rising skyscrapers.  For instance, from the Williamsburg Bridge -- not a decade old in 1912 -- one could see the nearly-completed Woolworth Building emerging from the downtown skyline. When one turned to the Brooklyn side, however, you were greeted only with towers of belching smokestacks from warehouses and factories, dark, sooty and noxious.

Immediately north of the bridge was the Domino sugar plant, a remnant of William Havemeyer's century-old sugar concern.  Nearby were the oil tanks and plants of Standard Oil, coal yards, concrete warehouses, gas reservoirs and even a marine freight terminal, with storage warehouses with grain and hay. Many workers of these factories actually lived close by in tenements along Kent Avenue.

And right in the middle of all that was the United Sulphur Company*, at Kent Avenue and North 10th Street. On the afternoon of November 25, 1912, an explosion here at the sulphur plant threatened to destroy the entire waterfront.

At right: Headline from the New York Tribune, November 26, 1912

Imagine both the sights and the smells of an exploding sulphur factory. Over 5,000 tons of crude sulphur were ignited, created a blast so powerful that some employees were literally blown into the river. Others were trapped in "suffocating fumes" and collapsed.

Newspaper reports made note of various acts of "unselfish heroism" as trained employees "plunge[d] into the yellow glare, shot with blue sulphur flame" to rescue unconscious co-workers.

Two more explosions spread the fire over three blocks, showering fiery embers into the hay bales over at the  Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal building and endangering the nearby oil and gas tanks.

Fire alarms rang throughout the entire city, as firefighters from other boroughs soon arrived to help combat the blaze. This was the second time in history that a 'borough call' -- essentially, all hands on deck -- had ever been made since the consolidation of New York in 1898.

The first would have been fresh on the minds of firefighters rushing to the scene -- the devastating blaze at the Equitable Building (in Manhattan, at 120 Broadway) which had killed six people that January.  It appears the borough call was not yet in place or was simply not called in 1911, when the fire at the Triangle Factory Fire killed 146 workers.

"This was the hardest fire of its sort I ever experienced," said New York fire chief John Kenlon of the blaze. Taking seven hours to fully extinguish, the inferno was made worse by the billowing sulfurous fumes which knocked out more than a few firemen and at least four fire horses.

One benefit of the burning sulphur: it smelled so rancid that residents of tenements in the surrounding neighborhood fled early from the smell. A good thing, as the flames eventually destroyed a tenement on Berry Street. A local saloon also caught fire from wisps of burning hay.

Below: An almost abstract photo of the fire from the Tribune.

Hundreds of spectators watched the blaze from the vantage of the Williamsburg Bridge, the sulphur created a thick curtain of smoke; the New York Times claimed that "the flames showed like dancing green sprites through the fog of gas and smoke."

Unbelievably, despite dire headlines -- 'DEAD IN RUINS OF BROOKLYN FIRE' -- it appears there were no deaths due to the blaze, but dozens of injuries. It was a true test of the consolidated New York Fire Department, and one they ably passed.

*'Sulfur' is the more preferred spelling today, but as the original company used the British spelling 'sulphur', I have continued that spelling throughout the article for consistency. 

Top illustration courtesy New York Public Library

Preview of the coming season

The week that passed were a busy week for us all because there were so many events going on around town. Mainly we went to different press offices to check out the new collections that will arrive in stores during spring. These are just a few of the pictures of the week that passed and we will do our best to upload some more so that you get to see what is coming up in stores. 

Until then; All we can tell you is that you have a lot to look forward to for spring!

PLUCK - THE HARP MUSICAL / Singapore Harpfest 2012 / Review

Singapore Harp Festival
University Cultural Centre Theatre
Saturday (24 November 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 26 November 2012 with the title "An enjoyable outing where everyine wins".

Sometime in the early 1980s, there was an article in The Straits Times which announced that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra had just bought a new harp, thus making a grand total of two performing harps in the whole of Singapore. So it might be considered progress when this concert featured no less than thirty harps of different sizes on stage.

Pluck is the brainchild of Seremban-born harpist Katryna Tan, winner of the Young Artist Award in 2005. This harp ensemble concert featuring young harpists of wide-ranging abilities was conceived in the form of a musical with a story catered to mostly primary school children. It centred on a sad kingdom of harpists, which had lost its musical voice, because its muse - the harp fairy - had been kidnapped by the evil kingdom of bowed strings.

Whether the friendly jibe at violinists, violists and cellists was a Freudian admission to an inferiority complex remains to be debated, but it gave many rising harp talents a chance to be heard. The protagonists were young orphan Pluck (played by 7–year-old Chloe Lam), her Guardian (Tatyana Philips), the King and Queen (a rare male harpist in teenager Lee Yun Chai and the slightly older Nicolette Chin), the harp fairy (6-year-old Isabel Ho) and their friends.

They performed in various combinations and also sang, all of which was accomplished admirably and totally from memory. Members of Rave Harpers, Singapore’s leading harp ensemble, chipped in to perform various dances from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, quite apt given the festive season. Original music by Eric Watson (Pluck Theme Song and Golden Orb), Phang Kok Jun (Sandy Road) and Philips (Don’t Give Up) also added local context and flavour to the melange.

A second half which saw the children comb corners of the world for the magic spell was the excuse for further music from Ireland (Danny Boy), Austria (Johann Strauss’s Tales from the Vienna Woods), Argentina (Piazzolla’s Libertango), Indonesia (Getaran Jiwa) and China (Spring Blossom On Moonlit River). Aided by Malaysia’s Cempaka Poise Harps and ubiquitous storyteller William Ledbetter, the proceedings took on the air of a variety show which ran close to two and a half hours.  

Strings and harps learn to play together!

The bowed strings of Fu Chun String Ensemble, dressed in all black and led by violinist Cindy Yan, were not to be outdone in its confident performances of Vivaldi’s Summerand Pascual Narro’s Espana Cani. In the end, the antagonists were not so much defeated but befriended by their neighbourly harpists. So everybody wins.

If anything, this enjoyable and even enchanting outing was both a reminder of the innocence of youth and how far harpists have come in a Singapore musical society overpopulated by pianists and violinists.  

Young harpists Lee Yun Chai (15) and Nicolette Chin (17), who played the King and Queen, receive their applause.

Katryna Tan (dark blue dress) and her harp gang take a final bow.


MOTHER, DAUGHTER, WIFE & LOVER / Singapore Lyric Opera Gala Concert / Review

Singapore Lyric Opera Gala Concert
Friday (23 November 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 26 November 2012 with the title "Sheer opulence in synergy of women's voices".

The Singapore Lyric Opera’s annual gala concert was a tribute to women in opera, showcasing a wide spectrum of their glorious characters and roles. Cue an established diva, a rising talent and a vampish pastor’s wife, all the ingredients for an enjoyable musical evening were there for the taking.

Young soprano Cherylene Liew, better known as the SLO Children’s Choir conductor, opened accounts with Puccini’s popular O mio babbino caro (Gianni Schicchi) with a svelte, seamless beauty. A daughter’s love for her father, earnest and true, later transformed into the seductive charm of water sprite Rusalka, in Dvorak’s Song to the Moon. She may not have the biggest of voices, but it was the heart and soul to her renderings that mattered most.

Veteran soprano Nancy Yuen commanded the stage like no other, running the full cache that included rapt pianissimos for Mozart’s Ach ich Fühl (The Magic Flute), longing in vain in Puccini’s Un bel di (Madama Butterfly), and unleashing dizzying coloratura turns that sparkled in the waltz-song Je ve vivre from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. Whether singing under the voice or hitting highest registers, La Yuen (the moniker christened by Singapore’s only opera blog The Mad Scene) has always been convincing.

The third singer was mezzo-soprano Anna Koor, whose maturing voice over the years has made her much in demand, was not overawed in this company. Although Verdi’s Stride la vampa(Il Trovatore) could have done with greater vehemence and sense of vengefulness, her creamy, dreamy tone in Saint-Saens’s Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix(Samson et Dalila) was judged to perfection. In the Caribbean rhythms of Bernstein’s What a Movie (Trouble in Tahiti), her jazzy nuances were all but drowned out by the exuberant orchestral accompaniment.

The synergy that transpired when two or more voices came together showed how well the three singers blended. The bel canto lines of Bellini’s Mira o Norma (Norma) simply delighted as both Yuen and Koor brought the first half to a heady close. The tandem of Yuen and Liew for Mozart’s Sull’Aria (The Marriage of Figaro) came across with mellowness and heart-felt sincerity. When all three joined briefly in the Final Trio of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the result was sheer opulence and pleasure.

The Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by Joshua Kangming Tan has become more than just a pit orchestra. The brass was in rampant form for the Triumphal Marchfrom Verdi’s Aida while the strings impressed throughout, with ensemble tautly knit in intermezzos from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly. Only the Preludeto Wagner’s Tristan and Isoldesounded under-rehearsed.

Someday the SLO might just conceive a concert for just tenors, baritones and basses, but women’s voices – a love affair for many an opera composer - will always be missed.



The Russian pianist Ilya Rashkovskiy has just been awarded 1st prize at the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition 2012 in Japan. In the final concerto round on Friday, he performed Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with the resident orchestra. He was also awarded the Audience Prize, which is not surprising given his popularity in Singapore and Hong Kong.

For the record, here are the six prizewinners in what is arguably Asia's most prestigious piano competition:

1st Prize: ILYA RASHKOVSKIY (Russia)
2nd Prize: NOZOMI NAKAGIRI (Japan)
3rd Prize: TAKASHI SATO (Japan)
4th Prize: ANNA TSYBULEVA (Russia)
5th Prize: JOON KIM (Korea)
6th Prize: KEI TAKUMI (Japan) 

I first got to know Ilya in 2005 when he won 1st prize at the Hong Kong International Piano Competition. Then only 21 years ago, I had predicted that he would win further first prizes at other major international piano competitions. He came close on a few occasions, but he was not to be denied this time! A roll call of his major prizes is as follows:

1st Prize, Vladimir Krainev International Piano Competition 1999
2nd Prize, Marguerite Long International Piano Competition 2002
1st Prize, Hong Kong International Piano Competition 2005
4th Prize, Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition 2007
2nd Prize, Vianna da Motta International Piano Competition 2010
3rd Prize, Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition 2011
1st Prize, Hamamatsu International Piano Competition 2012

With this win, he gets performance opportunities in Tokyo, New York, France (La Roque D'Antheron),  and Poland (Duznicki). Let's hope he has time to perform in Singapore again next year! 

Thanksgiving Recap

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with family, lots of food, and maybe a little shopping. My family hosted Thanksgiving at our house this year which meant my mom and sister did  most of the cooking. I helped in some ways (like making the Bloody Mary drinks for mom and I, ha) but couldn't do too much as I found watching my sister maneuvering around the kitchen amusing. She is a rookie in the kitchen and had a couple little humorous mishaps. 

After a late lunch that was delicious, I of course had to take a small nap before my sister and I attempted Black Friday shopping. I have never participated in the trend believe it or not. Ginny and I thought we would hop on the band wagon in search of deals on clothing. I am obviously not a pro at the whole midnight shopping thing and could hardly stay awake come 8pm. We decided to go to a 10pm movie to kill some time before the stores opened at 12. We went to see the movie Pitch Perfect. We also might have had a slight blonde moment on our journey though.. As we were sitting in the theatre waiting on the movie to start we kept seeing guys walk in. Of course it is not abnormal for guys to head to the theatre but we did think it was odd we were the ONLY girls to see this semi girly movie. Only after laughing at these boys for a good 15 minutes did we realize maybe, just maybe, were we in the wrong movie. Sure enough, yes we were. We were sitting in the middle of Red Dawn. We got a good laugh before awkwardly walking out and heading to the right movie. 

The movie ended just in time for shopping! I was able to score a couple deals for myself, part of my sisters gift and a gift for my mom. I think shopping was a success! 

Rihanna at Berns - 777 tour

OH, we forgot to tell you all about the Rihanna concert that we went to the other day! She came to Sweden for her 777 tour and the Stylish Outlaw Society were of course there to watch it and to dance along to her music. Lets just say that there were a lot of dancing involved and a couple of Martini Royale. After the show that ended pretty late we were all there to order a drink from her in the bar!