Monday, December 31, 2007

Deutschlandlied (German National Anthem)

I didn't know that Germany's national anthem was actually the second movement of Haydn's String Quartet No. 62 in C maj (Op. 76 No. 3), more commonly known as the Emperor Quartet, until I chanced upon the anthem in YouTube today. Such an alluring and beautiful melody!

A little more background on the music. Haydn created the melody for the text Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (God Preserve Emperor Franz) in honour of the reigning Austrian Emperor Franz II. It was first sung in theaters throughout the Austrian realm on the Emperor's birthday, 12 February 1797. Following its popularity, Haydn used it as the material for the second movement of his string quartet. The Emperor's Hymn was the last music Haydn played before he died on 31 May 1809.

It formed the melody of a Protestant hymn and in 1853, became the national anthem of Austria! The tune was given up after Austria's defeat in World War II and was subsequently taken up by Germany in 1950!

Guess they couldn't help it, with such an irresistible melody by beloved Haydn!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

In a Quiet Corner of A Certain Local Newspaper Today...

Best Classical Performances in 2007

Wagner Die Walkure Walküre (oh, please, not without the German Umlaut), Act 1
The first-ever concert performance of a "bleeding chunk" from Wagner's Ring Cycle in Singapore was a runaway hit. Solid performances from Gitta-Maria Sjoberg, Richard Decker and Martin Snell were backed by a full-strength SSO that proved to be much more than a pit orchestra. Who needs to go to Bayreuth after all?

He actually compared that performance to the ones they stage in Bayreuth? It couldn't even compare to the internet broadcast of the Bayreuth Festival! Unbelievable...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I have no reason to disagree that her version of the Chaconne was what Bach has intended...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Nature and Art

Things are beautiful, the representations of art succeed, to the extent that,through the clarity and significance of their form, they direct our attention to the 'innermost being' of the world. They are the opposite when, through the proliferation of disorganised, irrelevant and distracting detail, they fail to communicate a coherent vision of the truth. In art, as Iris Murdoch puts it, beauty consists in 'the artful use of form to illuminate truth'.

Julian Young in his book on the philosophy of Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer, in his The World as Will and Representation, recognises that art fulfils a didactic purpose, and believes that through art's deliverance of an universal knowledge, beauty will manifest itself in the process. In this respect, the association of truth and beauty seems very similar to Plato, when the latter puts forth the concept that generally, truth, goodness and beauty are closely related to one another and when one starts with any of them, the other two will be attained in the process. Apparently, such an association does not apply to the arts for Plato, when he mentions that art does not contain type of ideal truth.

However, what interests me about Schopenhauer is when he differs from Plato in the type of didactic function which art fulfils. In the Republic, Plato mentions of the existence of a tense relationship between philosophy and the arts. Philosophy, to him, imparts a significant and universal knowledge while art, on the other hand, is similar to illusion and fantasy, seducing us away from the truth and reality. As such, Plato concludes that art is unable to deliver the kind of knowledge in question. But Schopenhauer believes that art actually contains 'an acknowledged treasure of profound wisdom'. (The World as Will and Representation I) Schopenhauer makes use of visual art in his examples to illustrate this fact, but here, I shall attempt to draw similar parallels in music. Take the music of Bach for example. His choral music often have biblical titles. However, the piece of music whose significance is exhausted with a biblical title is entirely trivial (in Young's words). The true significance is never in the fact that the title reminds us simply of the historical biblical event, but in the very fact that the core values of the biblical personality or biblical principles of that event manifest themselves in the music. Like in Bach, the structure and the order inherent within the music aren't just superficial foundations upon which the entire music is formed. It does have a spiritual meaning as well. The harmony, melodic lines, counterpoint do hold symbolic meaning beyond what we study in our theory classes.

This brings us to another important aspect of Schopenhauer's argument that art expresses ideas more clearly than nature. The artist 'can express clearly what nature only stammers'. (The World as Will and Representation I) Before Schopenhauer, I have always believed that nature embodies a more perfect form of beauty and truth more than what an artist can articulate through art. I still find that true essentially, as we have to always factor human imperfection and the limitations of the artistic medium into the picture. However, Schopenhauer brought out an important aspect of the arts which I have missed out all along. The artist is able to focalise on a specific idea which may not be distinctly evident in nature, with the multiple distractions in place. A more literal example I have would be a motif. A beautiful motif can be made by random sounds in nature, but when a composer makes use of that motif which was inspired through sounds of nature, he focalises on it and develops it. For that particular instant when one appreciates the artwork, that main idea shines forth and is exalted for that special moment. And that's beauty.

Both the arts and nature are not mutually exclusive and neither can be considered more superior than the other. Both are closely related in many aspects. Schopenhauer and Plato hold opposing viewpoints with regards to this, and I don't find that either of them is strictly right or wrong, but to get a view of the entire picture of the relationship between the arts and nature and the rightful role of each of them, it will be essential to consider the views of both parties.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Strangest Experience

I apologise for the long hiatus! Thanks to Janice's comment, which reminded me that I still have this blog! It has been decades since I've last updated this place. Things have been really busy ever since school started, with me trying to balance performance, teaching, schooling and of course, dancing. I'm taking a break from the dance floor for these couple of weeks though, since my schedule has been leaving me breathless even before the end of the day and tango parties only start near midnight! There'll be an upcoming International Guitar Festival held locally in Singapore early next month and the updates should come as I'll attempt to review the performances and progress of the festival.

I haven't gotten anything informative to add, but I am having a lot of thoughts and feelings with regards to the performance yesterday yesterday. I had an unusual experience on stage yesterday. I was invited by the National Library Board with give a couple of performances every weekend for the past 3 weeks, mainly to publicise for the upcoming guitar festival. It was totally weird yesterday, when I found myself in the improvisatory mood on stage yesterday. It all started out with a memory slip in the Spanish Serenata - Granada by Isaac Albéniz, which was surprising because that was supposed to be my firmest piece and I wasn't the least affected by nerves. And of course, I kept the rhythm and worked out some random shapes on the fingerboard, but I swore it came out like I had added a snippet of Schoenberg into this romantic piece. Thankfully, after-performance reviews were pretty favourable for the piece.

And of course, the improvisation streak didn't stop there. Since I had a couple of arrangements of pop songs and tracks from famous musicals later on (what kitsch!), I decided to jazz them up a little (note: that was my intention, whether my execution was convincing was a completely different matter), this time intentionally. J's fiancée came up to me first after my performance, eyes wide open with petrification. "What happened to your pop songs?!?!?" Well, apparently, it doesn't work when you jazz such pieces up in, well, let us put this this way, Schoenberg style.

I intended to conclude the light session with just something light and easy, so I did the overplayed Romance in conventional style. Well, I did start the piece that way and intended to play it through simply, but when it came to the final recapitulation, I decided to throw caution to the wind and gave a tremolo version of that section. I had heard a couple of variations on it, but it was essentially a novel attempt for me, not to mention the fact that I hadn't refined my tremolo technique for what seemed like a couple of centuries. It was all weird and so different from a conventional performance. I just thought that since I couldn't make it refined, might as well do it fast, rough and hard (no pun intended). I'm still recovering from the shock that such a idea actually occured to me (or even existed within me for that matter) within that milliseconds I had to decide on how to end the piece on the stage. That was probably some Freudian process at work there. I don't exactly have a word to describe my state of mind towards the end. Barbaric probably comes close. Thankfully again, it was well received, surprisingly. The audience that evening probably liked it rough! Analysing it in perspective though, it was probably because of the fact that there weren't many people within the audience who were purists last evening. With authenticity and some variations, I could please both groups of people with their respective preferences (which, of course, wasn't considered when I was deciding to do it that way).

Those were the strange moments in last evening's performance. Of course, I am essentially trained as a classical musician, so the rest of the classical pieces I played were conventional, with me entering that altered state as usual. In retrospect, in some of the weird moments during the performance last evening, I somehow caught a glimpse of the state of mind jazz musicians are in. And of course, the way I did it was a far cry from how Stephen Francis improvised a jazzed version of Elvis Presley's Can't Help Falling In Love in Bellini Room later in that evening. Sublime!

Note: Schoenberg's name is used figuratively and simply in this post to symbolise passages which are not within the confines of tonality. I do, essentially, have lots of respect for him and his works and in no way should the above mentions of him suggest a mockery of him, his style or compositions.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


I have observed that artistes (with artistes-at-heart and patrons of the arts) often seek to cultivate good tastes in the society and economists, on the other hand, have come up with theories and formulae to measure tastes and preferences of the society, making a list of assumptions on the multiple variables which have to remain constant. Who are the ones who're indulging in a vainer activity?

And they say that artistes are unrealistic...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Performance Afterthoughts

It has been a hectic week preparing for this performance. Not a traditional classical music setting, but playing live music for storytelling. In fact, it was the first time I was playing for a storytelling performance, and at the same time, premiering a composer's new work with a strange mix of instruments comprising of the piano, oboe and guitar.

In the midst of working intensively with such professional artistes of a very different nature in the past week, I have gained lots of invaluable lessons, not only in storytelling, but in theatrical art in general as well. The talented and passionate artistes form a small, close-knitted community which respects and holds their art in the highest regard. Combining storytelling with live music, which can be loosely termed as programme music, is a relatively new concept locally. For this year's two-week festival, I'm honoured to be working with the composer Kah Chun and the storytellers for the opening two days when local storytellers takes centre stage.

It was my first time playing in the Arts House. I never knew we had such a charming and intimate performance venue locally. I had taken a few photos of the venue and its vicinity throughout the four performances these 2 days.

The Arts House Building. Sweet charming architecture which stands besides the Padang. Thanks to PY, I've caught her bug of taking snapshots of corners of Singapore.

The Arts House Entrance

The Auditorium. I took this when I reached the venue early, when no one else had arrived yet. It's actually the Old Parliament House.
That's our performing platform. The musicians, excluding me who was taking the photo of course, were deep in conversation with the artistes.

Here's a snapshot of what everyone was doing before the performance. There we have our makeup artist, Caroline, looking into the mirror. Lovely lady who rendered her professional services for free to them annually for the festival.

That's another snapshot I took while taking a break from the book I was reading in my free time between the concerts. That was Dolly in white on the left and and Rosemarie on the right. Far back the room was Sheila. I love the way they were on stage! Such passion!

Of course, besides sitting behind backstage during the free time, I took a walk around the vicinity.

The Singapore River. There's something nostalgic and poetic about this shot.

The Padang on the left and the distinctive skyscrapers in the background. The latter forms much of the city skyline locally.

And here's Raffles City, one of many large shopping complexes in the city area locally.

Not forgetting the exotic mix of musicians. Kah Chun the composer-conductor standing behind. Edward the pianist on the left, though he's trained in the violin professionally. Justin the oboist on the right. I truly enjoyed playing with them.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On Playing in a Group that Isn't So Good

For me it’s simply playing my best. I don’t attempt to play the group’s best. Believe it or not, that’s an easy thing for us to do sometimes. (Now if the group is better than I am, I definitely work at playing their best!) Playing less than one’s best really drags a person down, and can lead to some very bad habits. So I attempt to play my best.

Taken from oboeinsight. Read the full article there.

My sentiments exactly. Having played in amateur school ensembles a couple of times, I realised that playing at a lower level, especially for long periods of time, often desensitises me. Especially when it comes to simple mistakes which are more commonly made, resulting in everyone having to repeat the same passages ad nauseam. It certainly takes more effort, in fact much more effort, to brace oneself and play at his or her best, in the midst of the the less blessed musicians around. And note the way Patricia put it - "So I attempt to play my best", with the reiteration of that difficulty at the end of her article...

On the other hand, playing in a superior chamber group, ensemble or orchestra will catapult one higher musically, if the musician has some pride in his or her music that is.

So you see the contrast? Ideally, I'm sure one would choose to be in the latter scenario, but alas, that isn't the case all the time, due to financial, obligatory or other reasons...

I see such instances whereby one is engaged to play in a still-maturing group as a mirror of his or her values as a musician. Most, sad to say, often fall short of the level they usually perform at in those cases. If they have a perfectionist streak in them naturally, it somehow just doesn't seem to show up in those practices. The right way to resolve this isn't to reject engagements by such groups, as what most would do, but in fact to reflect on one's values as a musician, followed by accepting such engagements as far as one's schedule would allow. Playing in such groups might not make one improve musically or technically, but it does mould the musician spiritually and mentally, if he or she goes for practices with the right perspective.

I guess it's time for me to evaluate my values as a musician too...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Special Mention

This evening's performance was by far the most enriching and special artistic performance which I've gone to this year. I shall talk about this in my upcoming post...

However, it wasn't the performance that captured my heart this evening. It was the company I had. The performance opened my eyes to the value of the arts. The companionship, however, made me understand myself more than any arts performance would.

Thank you.

Let this be an evening to remember for the years to come, just as the last one we had together more than three years back...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Der Ring des Nibelungen

*Note: This is not a review or an attempt at that. Just some personal opinions from a greenhorn to the Wagner scene.*

This grand opera of Wagner for the Bayreuth Festspiele '07 ends this evening with Götterdämmerung.

I have to admit that this is the first time whereby I've sat through the entire Ring cycle within a span of less than a week. What a journey!

I have listened to different sections of the entire cycle on records every now and then, and I have to admit that this year's production of this trilogy doesn't speak to me. Judging from the lukewarm applause upon the closing of this evening's Götterdämmerung, I believe that many of the people there felt the same. I can't deny that several segments of this entire cycle do shine, but on the whole, there's still something lacking, and I can't exactly put my finger on it.

This similar production, thankfully traditional, will run for the upcoming few years until 2010. On their side, there'll probably be quite some more fine-tuning to do to bring this trilogy to a higher level. Hopefully by then, I would have acquired more knowledge to fully appreciate this masterpiece by the greatest opera composer.

Tomorrow's the last opera for this year's Bayreuth Festspiele, Parsifal. I'm looking forward to it, not the end, but to indulge in another masterpiece by Wagner...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Quirky Quote

First of all: I am not a fan of Regietheater: I firmly believe that it is 1% ignorance and 99% exibitionism.

But the case of Kathi is slightly different: perhaps her mix is 30% smartness and 70% exhibitionism (and this was perhaps also the ratio applause/boos after her debut).

Read it all here.

Daland carries on by giving his opinions on Kathrina's production of Meistersinger on the opening day of Bayreuth. A break from the all-so-similar reviews out there.

A true Wagnerite! How I pale in comparison to him and the others out there!


Design and Realisation of Card Courtesy of Ivan Lim

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

An Abhorrent System

In my entry to my new academic institution, I was recently introduced to their academic culture module. One of the first few concepts they emphasised was on independent learning and inquiry. Upon coming out from the module, I felt like I've been waddling in a pool of mud. Here's a short summary. In the independent quest for learning, they taught four methodologies, namely survey, compiling documented information, experiments and reasoning. After that follows mandatory steps of justification and critical thinking. I wouldn't go into the details, but you get the rough idea they're advocating.

How am I supposed to reconcile this with the way I function in the artistic field? I'll give an example - aesthetics. Beauty is a central concept in the arts, at certain times even prized higher than values like truth and goodness. Here's an imaginary scenario of myself in a conversation with someone else upon graduation out of this academic institution...

(looking at an abstract form in marble in a sculpture exhibition)

Friend: This is beautiful...
Me: Why do you think so?
Friend: Huh?
Me: As in justify your statement, why is it beautiful?
Friend (hesitatingly, for now his statement concept of beauty is being questioned): The usage of the black marble and spheres, arranged in the simplest manner...
Me: Let's work this out one by one. How does black marble make it beautiful? How does the colour itself and material itself trigger your aesthetic nerves?
Friend: It just comes together. Marble, polished with such meticulous care, painted in black, would result in such a beautiful effect.
Me: So it's the shiny surface of marble. What if he had used glass or a form of well-polished metal for it? Wouldn't it achieve the same effect?

And so the conversation can go on and on, questioning each individual quality in the sculpture, to the way they interact and even on to our perception of beauty, the way we perceive it. (One might argue that aesthetics is such subjective issue that it shouldn't be subject to any justification or any form of rules or trend in the first place, how about issues like capital punishment, euthanasia etc? Aren't there so many perspectives and controversies around these issues? Despite that, they're still being brought up for discussion in such a systematic scientific way.)

How destructive such learning concepts are to the appreciation of artistic objects and forms. And here, in this renowned institution, such skills (based on these concepts) are honed until they're second nature to the student! The picture now. This institution, or rather most academic institutions locally, instil this raging desire to question, research, reason and justify in order to learn. All to the point that without an answer, they wouldn't be satisfied. No satisfaction without an answer. The students are pushed until they can see the inner workings and mechanisms of it all. Going far too fast. How can one fully appreciate and learn about an artistic work and form in such a manner? Can one learn about an artistic work after taking it apart into its smallest components like the way a technician learns?

I'll end off here with a passage by "Speaking of Beauty" by Denis Donoghue.

In "The Artist of the Beautiful" (1844) Hawthorne tells of Owen Warland, a young man who works as a watch-repairer but who lives his true life in search of the beautiful. He is gifted with a acute sense of the delicate and minute. Mind and hand are turned towards the exquisite. Owen thinks of his work as a tribute to Annie Hovenden, whom he loves and regards as his ideal companion, best recipient of the beautiful. For her, he makes a metal butterfly that perches on one's hand, flies off, and returns. It is a work of extraordinary refinement. But Annie marries Robert Danforth, the local blacksmith, a man of iron, and they have a child who resembles his father in that respect. Peter Hovenden, was once a watchmaker and Owen's master, but he is now retired. He is a materialist and despises Owen's yearning for the exquisite. (...) The implied narrator is on Owen's side, because he believes that the "deeds of the earth, however ethereralized by by piety or genius, are without value, except as exercises and manifestations of the spirit." After many tribulations and lapses during which he ceases "to be an inhabitant of the better sphere that lies unseen around us," he succeeds in making the butterfly, giving it his own life. One evening he shows it to Annie, Robert, their child, and Peter:

Nature's ideal butterfly was here realized in all its perfection, not in the pattern of such faded insects as flit among earthly flowers, but of those which hover across the meads of paradise for child-angels and the spirits of departed infants to disport themselves with. The rich down was visible upon its wings; the luster of its eyes seemed instinct with spirit, the firelight glimmered around this wonder - the candles gleamed around it; but it glistened apparently by its own radiance, and illuminated the finger and outstretched hand on which it rested with a white gleam like that of precious stones. In its perfect beauty, the consideration of size was entirely lost. Had its wings overreached the firmament, the mind could not have been more filled or satisfied.

Annie thinks it beautiful and wants to know if it is alive. Robert laughs at it. Peter wants only to see how it works. The child grabs it. In a few moments, meeting those roughness and vulgarities, the butterfly loses its beauty and dies...

Sunday, July 29, 2007


... a few years down the road, what audiences will get at the Bayreuth Festspiele wouldn't be and exclusive seven evenings of only-Wagner operas, but instead, a mixture of other German operatic productions as well. Our dear Richard Wagner would probably flip in his grave if he knew how his operatic productions in his very own Festspielhaus had changed over the years. Superficial caricatures of the originals. With the invasion of productions of operas by other composers, he would soon flip out of his grave... What a desecration of the Festspielhaus...

Do head over to the A.C. Douglas's website for updates on the Bayreuth Festspiele 2007. He has diligently consolidated the reviews and articles, on top of his own, on this topic.

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Die Walküre

Die Walküre, the First Day of the Ring, was on this evening, a continuation from Das Rheingold from the previous evening.

I started listening from Act II on the Dwójka Polskie Radio this evening. Having accessed the webcast a couple of minutes late after what I supposed what the starting time, I was surprised on hearing the Valhalla leitmotif, which I vaguely recalled its appearance only during the second act. It was only after some time later that I realised that the operacast website had printed the timing for two of the radio stations wrongly. By that time, it didn't make much sense to switch to the other radio station with the delayed broadcast since Act I would have been more than halfway completed.

I thoroughly enjoyed Acts II and III this evening. Albert Dohmen, as Wotan, caught my attention with his confident and powerful delivery. Together with last evening's performance of Das Rheingold, I find that he was adept in bringing out the multifaceted character of Wotan vocally. I was moved by the way his voice shimmers above the orchestra in proclaiming his [sadly temporal] support for Siegmund, and when he was conflicted upon Fricka's chastisement of his notion of love and his ways as a god and husband, his immanent frustration upon killing of Siegmund, and of course, his most intense nostalgia in the closing passages of the last act.

Linda Watson, as Brünnhilde, wasn't as consistent. In the dramatic sections whereby her vocals were supposed to float above the orchestra, she was drowned out by the latter. On the other hand, her rendition of the monologue at the end of Act II Scene 2 was the most beautiful I've heard thus far. In heart-rending passage with such poetic libretto, she brought out conflicting wretchedness in Brünnhilde in the most alluring manner.

And of course, now to the tragic hero, Siegmund, sung by tenor Endrik Wottrich. How I wish the lifespan of his character was lengthened! Such power and intimacy in the same voice! I shall take note of the re-broadcast, and indulge myself in his proclamation of love to Sieglinde in Act I Scene 3. I have no doubts that it'll be superb.

The Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele under Christian Thielemann was strong, as like the last evening, stringing every single unit of the opera together to create the most complete and coherent picture. Come to think of it, they're unrivalled when it comes to Wagnerian repertoire.

Thankfully, there'll be a break of a day before Siegfried will be shown. Being situated in an obscure corner of Mars, the time difference is just horribly different. I shall attempt to compile the available reviews on this entire Bayreuther Festspiele in the next coming few days. Apparently, the opening night wasn't well received with the radically different production by Katharina Wagner. We shall see how it turns out. Right now, I would personally prefer a traditionalist to the throne (all three candidates are, as quoted from A.C. Douglas, unfortunately, supporters of Regietheater and none seemed like conservatives), as I'm still considerably new to Wagner music. Give me a few more years of largely similar traditional productions and it'll difficult to say though...

Darn, I'm more interested in the politics of the Bayreuther Festspiele than the local politics.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold

The production of the legendary Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuther Festspiele 2007 has started. Christian Thielemann will be conducting these four evenings of the entire cycle.

Das Rheingold! Behold the conflict between love and power! Introduced this very first evening will be the multifaceted character of Wotan, the renunciation of love for power by Alberich, the craftiness of Loge (with a flawed sense of righteousness so despised by Wagner), the superficiality and simple-mindedness of the giants Fafner and Fasolt...

So much to write, but I need to go back the music. To end off, here's the cast for this evening's performance...

Conductor Christian Thielemann
Production Tankred Dorst
Sets Frank Philipp Schlößmann
Costume Bernd Ernst Skodzig

Wotan Albert Dohmen
Donner Ralf Lukas
Froh Clemens Bieber
Loge Arnold Bezuyen
Fasolt Kwangchul Youn
Fafner Hans-Peter König
Alberich Andrew Shore
Mime Gerhard Siegel
Fricka Michelle Breedt
Freia Edith Haller
Erda Mihoko Fujimura
Woglinde Fionnuala McCarthy
Wellgunde Ulrike Helzel
Flosshilde Marina Prudenskaja
(most are similiar's to last year's)

I'm thankful there wouldn't be any intermission tonight. Given the length of the intermissions for the previous two evenings, I am speculating that they have a shortage of cubicles over there...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

I have to admit that I clicked on the webcast with that a slight skeptism, despite my love for Wagner's operas. I was almost preparing to turn in after a long day earlier, if the first few minutes into the opera didn't move me. The moment the first sounds of the production this evening came forth through my headphones, I knew I was hooked for the entire duration of it. For the few times when I've gone through the entire length of Wagner's operas, they were all savoured together with the visual staging. This was by far the first time I was hooked on the entire production simply based on the music without any visual stimulation.

Such a wonderful opening to this year's production of the Bayreuther Festspiele! Sebastian Weigle conducted the Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele with such Wagnerian charm, with the right touch of humour in this opera. The soloists sounded beautiful this evening. If the staging was anywhere as good as the music, this completely new production by Katharina Wagner would have been a success.

As to the composition of this opera, the libretto is beautifully and poetically written! Lighter in mood compared to his other works, but it certainly doesn't lose out in depth compared to them. How can one not be impressed when confronted by the Wagner's ingenuity?

So much to talk about, but I shan't disgrace myself further by showing my ignorance. I'm still new to the Wagnerian opera scene and have lots more to learn. Let's wait for the professional critics to come out with their reviews...

Almost seven hours of live audio webcast of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg after a full day of activities, it's nigh time I catch some sleep. And Tannhäuser's on tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bayreuther Festspiele 2007

There it goes by again... The Bayreuther Festspiele 2007 opens today with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. And there seem to be some pretty intense fireworks this year between the 29-year-old great-granddaughter of our beloved Richard Wagner, Katharina Wagner, with her cousins, Nike Wagner, 62, a musicologist and artistic director of the Kunstfest Weimar arts festival, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, her step-sister from her father's first marriage, also 62, artistic adviser to the Aix en Provence opera festival...

It's on now. Schedules on the official website. Catch the webcast here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Tabula Rasa

Have been drowning myself with a great deal of recordings of modern works lately, with works by Messiaen, Takemitsu, Arvo Pärt, Penderecki and others appearing on my player more often than before.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is most well known for his third and current phase of compositional style, which he himself termed as tintinnabulation. It's intriguing to learn of how he has progressed since he first appeared on the scene. From an experimental twelve-tone compositional technique following Schoenberg, he reached an interim phase whereby he made use of collage techniques whereby he "cut-and-paste" sections from pieces ranging from the renaissance to the romantic periods onto his twelve-tone compositions. Being still unsatisfied, he went into a stage of self-imposed silence, only to emerge with a most unique voice.

I was first drawn to his music by his most peculiar concept of sound and have been hooked since. I surprise myself when I look at recordings of his works which I've amassed over the past few months. One could almost see a holy aura surrounding the music from the very moment the first note is sounded. Here, I shall attempt to put into words my reflections on one of his most famous compositions, Tabula Rasa.

Scored for two violins, string orchestra, and prepared piano, this work consists of two movements - Ludus (with movement) and Silentium (without movement). For the first time, I actually loved and could understand the sounds of a prepared piano. The prepared piano uses a tonic pedal to give the pulse and movement, like a breathless race through time. Some other points, it was used to create the bell tones like those coming from a monastery. At other times, it is used to create a tone cluster of an unimaginable depth to sound a death knell.

The first movement is just a simple yet profound alternation between two sections - the theme and silence. Behold the depth in the impulsive pulsing sections where the instruments come together to create tensional surge to propel the music forth, choking the listener of the space to breath. It is only resolved in a series of monastric bell-like sounds on the prepared piano before fading away into midst of of the calm and tranquil silence. The extended periods of contemplative silence provide the much needed deliverence from the tensional rush, such stoic moments so indifferent to the contrasting sections encompassing them.

How can one help but be drawn into this masterful blend of arsis (movement and impulse) and thesis (rest) - a rhythmic technique found commonly in Gregorian chants in the renaissance era? The two solo violins, as the music progresses on, engages in an almost devilish dance, encouraged on by the sounding of the death knell on the prepared piano, originally sounding once every time the theme comes on, but recurring repeatedly like a hounding nightmare in the last segment. In a most enigmatic way, all the tension is resolved in a cold A min drone, creating the effect of sounding on for eternity.

How apt, when it leads on to the 2nd movement, where for the sixteen over minutes, Arvo Pärt creates the most beatific effect of a most tranquil suspension in eternity. When it all ends, I sense in myself a disappointment in the very fact that it has ended. I guess I shan't go too much into the second movement for any form of description in words would be far from sufficient to put that music into words.

Nonetheless, it's been a most spiritually rich journey, not just through this particular masterpiece, but through his other works as well. Truly blessed this deeply spiritual man is, with such an esoteric concept of sound and ability to create such exoteric compositions palatable for most.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Been a long time since I last updated this place. Just an entry to update my readers that I'm still alive. I've been caught up with loads of work recently and barely have the time to have a proper rest.

A friend came over to share some music over at my place today. In an attempt to showcase his conducting skills under the tutelege of respectable conductors Leonid Korchmar and Alexander Polishchuk from the St. Petersburg Conservatory when he was over in Russia, he introduced the 1st, 2nd and 4th movements from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. Such heartwrenching pain in the first movement. Such grandeur and passion in the march at the end. In the middle lies the most beautiful second movement. Such earth-shaking exaltation, when salvation is used as a theme, in a stark contrast to his Symphonies No. 4 and 6. In the heat of his passion at the end, he proclaimed it, together with several Russian compositions, to be the best music around. And of course, given his ultimately huge ego, he couldn't help exalting the Russian school of conducting as he compared the German, American and Russian conducting styles at the same time. Such haughtiness.

Naturally, I knew I had to protect German music, with names and reputations of our beloved Bach, dramatic Beethoven, poetic Schubert and romantic Brahms in danger of being overwhelmed by the Russian masters at that moment. In jest, I decided to launch a counteroffensive. For that moment, he was the nationalistic Russian, and I, the nationalistic German. Mentally, I was in a mad rush to scan through all the German composers and their compositions. I needed to fight on home ground, at the same time not too distant from what he was familiar with in order to convince him. An orchestral composition, with a strong nationalistic touch, a contemporary of Tchaikovsky. Time was ticking. Yes, if he was going to overwhelm me with the unmistakable stench of Bolshevikian mass marches, I would retaliate with the mind-blowing aroma of Germanic romantic chivalry. He probably knew more about Brahms than I do. Yes, Wagner! I whipped out my recording of his ultimate Tristan und Isolde by Daniel Barenboim (whom he had earlier flamed jokingly on his flowery conducting technique in his recording of Brahm's Symphony No. 1 with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra). Strictly speaking, it wasn't orchestral music, but since he wasn't that familiar with operas, I guess the prelude would make a great candidate. The prelude was sufficient, more than sufficient to counter his three movements of Russian nationalism. And there, as the first sounds came in, culminating in the famous Tristan chord, I conducted this time with passion and gusto (probably more like a lunatic for conducting isn't my forte). Waves and waves of unresolved dissonances together with the intense and sensuous conversations between the instruments. Prima!

*Maybe at this point, I should clarify. Both of us are truly all rounded music lovers. In fact, I fell in love with Russian music much earlier than any music by Bach, Beethoven or Wagner. And as for him, he worships Beethoven and Brahms. Our quibble was a suitable impetus for us to start hurling music at each other to widen our musical repertoire while in a heightened and alert state of mind.*

Being clearly deeply moved by the Wagner, he braced himself and retaliated with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I groaned. It was going to be a long evening. Not having sufficient rest and recovering from the excesses of last evening weren't helping much! My mind was spinning for the entire day. I couldn't escape sitting through the entire Pictures, but I sure did enjoy it. Beautiful composition by Mussorgsky and masterful orchestration by Ravel! Such colours and evocative paintings of sound.

It was pretty much bombing each other with pieces for the entire evening, a full five hours. It didn't end with Mussorgsky! We had Brahm's Symphony No. 1 after that and a load of his compositions and projects after that. A most taxing music sharing session but ultimately satisfying.

Earlier throughout the day, it was strange how excerpts from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana played on repeat mode in my mind. I hadn't touched that recording probably for the past century, but to think just a mention of it by Ivan last evening got it all back into my head. Or was a it a subconscious attempt of my mind to get rid of all the most repetitive music I had been exposed to the previous evening? I can safely say that I've survived 5 hours of continuous blasting pop band music and 5 hours of continuous gigantic classical works the following day. Gained much from both marathons in very different ways, though I'm still pretty much zonked out from all the activities for the past few days.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

An Evening of Sacred Music

It was a most memorable and spiritual evening with the Chor des Bayerischen Runkfunks (Bavarian Radio Chorus) under the direction of Peter Dijkstra. It was the first day of their Asian Premiere in Singapore this evening. Their programme this evening consisted of a range of German and Austrian sacred choral works from the renaissance to the romantic era, a huge contrast to their next performance which will consist of secular works held tomorrow afternoon.

This performance by the Chor des Bayerischen Runkfunks was in fact the first performance which caught my attention in this year's Singapore Arts Festival when the programme for the festival was unveiled. I went down to the immediately to grab the best seat available during early March, a good 3 months before the concert day. I had heard good reviews of the Chor des Bayerischen Runkfunks and it was a pleasant surprise when I got to know that they were coming down to town. And this evening, they put up one of the most charming concerts amongst all the vocal concerts I've ever been to in my life.

Such a sublime performance which I've experienced this wonderful evening. Please pardon me for my words on this performance for they only serve to undermine the true spiritual, musical and emotional value of their live performance in a concert hall, but I can't help but pen my them down!

The first half of their this evening consisted of choral works in the renaissance and baroque era. Two renaissance compositions, by Heinrich Schütz and Orlando di Lasso, were included alongside Bach. Tonight was the first time I was presented with a genre of works by Bach that I wasn't very familiar with - his motets (BWV 226 and 228). The performance of the former, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226) touched me in a deepest manner. On the composition, despite it being a motet, Bach apparently couldn't help infusing this traditional form with the chorale style which he was so proficient in. Probably one of the most melodious motets which I've listened to. This motet is special in the fact that it was scored with an orchestral accompaniment. It was sung unaccompanied this evening, without the orchestral parts. I couldn't compare, since I've never heard of any renditions other than the one this evening. Probably due to the lack of orchestral colours, the purity and beauty of the unaccompanied human voices managed to shine forth and fill the concert hall this evening. Peter Dijkstra, amazingly young and talented for a conductor of this renowned choir, managed to draw a myriad of most captivating sounds from the singers. The melismatic passages in the first movement were executed with a sparkling quality by the musicians. One could really sense the shimmering brilliance of the melisma above the rest of the voices in the concert hall.

The second half featured sacred works by Mozart, Josef Gabriel Rheinberger, Anton Bruckner and Mendelssohn. Ave verum corpus (KV 618) by Mozart was a most captivating start to a second half. It is a very short work by Mozart towards the end of his life. This evening, the Chor des Bayerischen Runkfunks presented an unpretentious yet sensitive rendition of this work. The nuances were realised with such artistry but never in anyway exaggerated. How could I help being charmed by such solemn yet elegant beauty?

Two movements from a work by Josef Gabriel Rheinberger were sung this evening. I have to admit my ignorance at the existence of such a prolific German composer despite being familiar with his contemporaries, Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms. Drei geistlichen Gesängen (Op 69) of Rheinberger was presented tonight. I was immensely moved by their interpretation of the work. The purity of the voices infused a most special quality to the notes. Even during the extended pianissimo sections of the work, the purity of the each single vocal section was amazingly clear and possessed a fluid-like quality, like the unbroken flow of a peaceful river. I was drawn deep into that harmony at a certain point in that section, whereby I knew at that moment whereby the sounds doesn't have a beginning nor an end. Time simply didn't exist at that particular instant at all... The silky smooth expansion of the sound from a most tender pianissimo to a deep and powerful fortissimo within a single phrase of the work is still fresh in my mind.

At the end, the audiences tonight were presented with two oriental Chinese works as encores. They weren't familiar to me, but I could somehow make out words like water and mountains. At least I thought I heard those words and believed that they brought out that images well. I don't think it was them who didn't pronounced the Chinese words well, but more possibly because I myself am not proficient in that language. What a shame, when the language is supposed to be my mother tongue. After the end, the lady beside me commented that they sang the oriental pieces better than the Chinese. Oh well...

Despite the choir exhausting their encore pieces, the applause lasted even after the last musician has left the stage. All in all, it was a most rejuvenating evening of sacred music, an unaccompanied vocal performance of the highest artistic order. I certainly don't regret getting the most expensive seats for this performance...

*I apologise for the pathetic attempt to put my afterthoughts on such a sublime performance into words. The states that I were in during and after the live performance were indescribable. (probably the simplest but best way to put it)*

Sunday, May 20, 2007

True Beauty

Recordings of Bach's Ich Habe Genug (BWV 82), found their way into my player more often than other works lately. It contains one of the most beautiful arias ever written in history - Schlummert ein. Such exquisite charm. Listening to it never fails to melt me from inside. The recording by Hans Hotter and Peter Kooy are my personal favourites. Simplicity. That's what it needs. Somehow, he just allowed the music to sing by itself without imposing his own vocal and musical authority on the melodic line.

Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen,
Fallet sanft und selig zu!
The entire aria is summed up in the descending line "Fallet sanft und selig zu". It's just the most natural to allow that line to fade gradually into silence. A small flame flickering and dying out. Just fading into oblivion...

Welt, ich bleibe nicht mehr hier,
Hab ich doch kein Teil an dir,
Das der Seele könnte taugen.
Bach wrote these lines in such a way such that by the time it reaches the end of the respective phrases, one would just be able to sing "taugen" with just a whisper. I've been wondering why some singers would attempt to conserve their breath for the last few words, resulting instead, in the suffocation of the melodic line. In any case, it's just amazing how well this aria was written and phrased. Such sublime beauty. Whenever I listen to this work, it does give me a sense that Bach really have intended the singers to yield themselves to the melodic line and succumb to her beauty.

Beauty. That's what it's about. The beautification of death...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Thoughts on Wagner

Just caught a glimpse of the genius of Wagner last week. Someone once compared the intelligence of Daniel Barenboim, when he expounded on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, with that of current political leaders and found him to be much more superior than them. What do we say of Wagner then, who has written the opera, libretto and music all by himself? How can anyone come close to him in terms of depth and musical ideas in their operas? It's unfortunate that some people don't have the aptitude to see past the superficial themes which Wagner had used in his operas. With just a bit more, they could delve right into this rich and profound world of this master. How can one sit through his operas and remain the same person as he was before?

Musical ideas aside first for now, let's just touch on his libretto for Der Ring des Nibelungen. Charged with revolutionary political ideas, profound philosophical ideas, this epic had managed to get past the censors during Wagner's time. Such ideas subtly permeates the entire Ring cycle and other operas which were done after the influence of Schopenhauer. Nope, trying to give a summary of his ideas would result in me writing a book, of which books with such content are already flooding the market. I'll just talk about my personal brush with Wagner from the performance of just the first act of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) by SSO last Saturday.

One can see the gradual transformation of this great master in his philosophical and musical ideas from Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) to the Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Music, once subservient to the rhetoric, now moves ahead of the words. As the story unfolds, the psychology and inner world of each character at every point of time, is reflected in the music, even and especially, at those moments when the characters are putting on a facade. The hidden, internal psychology of the characters are brought into the foreground only by the music, when the libretto doesn't reveal anything regarding it.

I guess the main reason why Wagner had insisted to write his own libretto was because of his need to hide those powerful yet subtle political undertones beneath the apparent light-hearted mythological storyline. Which other predecessor or contemporary had written their own libretto for their own opera? Richard Strauss and Michael Tippett had written their own libretto, the former having just done one and the latter for all his operas. Fairly successful, but how could their operas stand at the same level as those by Wagner? No one comes close to his capability to write their own libretto for their own operas.

One of the many parts which caught my attention was to the scene when Siegmund and Sieglinde expressed their love for each other. They sang of the arrival of spring (as in the libretto), but the music was distinctively done in the operatic style of Mozart. A superficial caricature and showcase of Wagner's skill in reproducing the operatic compositional style of another? It seems much deeper than that. What happened in the next act? As usual, Wagner killed Siegmund and erased him for the rest of the Ring cycle. That naivety and innocence of the Mozartian style was ridiculed and mocked! At the same time, it, too, exposes the philosophies of Wagner regarding love, the social classes (humans being controlled by gods as an allusion to the social classes during Wagner's society) etc. Just the tip of the iceberg of Wagner's ingenuity and intelligence.

Gesamtkunstwerk. It pretty sums it up everything. It suggests the totality of the artistic merging of subject and object. Wagner not only pulled it off, but had done so in a sublimal way. Despite it being an average, or even below average performance to some, of just the first act of Die Walküre, Wagner's genius is still evident in that evening of Wagnerian music.

As for the evening of Wagner music by SSO, though it consisted an ambitious and large-scale work, it wasn't well programmed. It was served with Siegfried Idyll as an unsuitable appetiser. The Siegfried Idyll is an introduction of the themes from the third act of Siegfried in a chamber music setting. Nothing in relation to the music which comes after the interval. The mere similarity in the transparent orchestration, distinctive of Wagner and shows Wagner's preference to get the musical events clearly to the audience instead of overwhelming them with a colourful blend of tonal and orchestral colours, was what one could draw from the programme. Other than this mere similarity, whereby any other work by Wagner would suffice, both weren't suited for a programme. If I were to choose a complementary piece to introduce just the first act, I would believe that an orchestral or even chamber arrangement of Ride of the Valkyries from the third act of the same opera would be appropriate. At least it would gel with the main programme as it's taken from the same opera, though much wilder after Wagner's influence by Schopenhauer.

As for how Siegfried Idyll had gone, it wasn't their musicans at their best. It's just strange when, after the concert, you get to know the musicians were unhappy and attributing the fault to a particular player. But well, I'm digressing. That'll be another story.

I guess for the main programme, they pulled it off well, given the fact that the work really wasn't easy. The conductor gave me an impression of being more jittery and rigid as compared to his usual flowery style (as a fellow musician friend of mine put it). On the whole, I was pleased with how the entire programme had gone.

This work was premiered in the mid 1800s. More than a century old work. Upon reading reviews and comments of this work, I lament the listening abilities of today's audiences. Over all these time, our senses seemed to have dulled instead of being able to comprehend the music of this great master. There's still this deplorable passivity in the modern day audience, leading to an unwillingness to understand the music, as well as art, and life itself.

I shall end this off with a statement by Theordor Adorno, despite it being made a couple of decades ago, still applies today.

Ambivalence is a relation toward something one has not mastered; one behaves ambivalently toward a thing with which one has not come to terms. In response to this, the first task at hand would be, quite simply, to experience the Wagnerian work fully -- something that to this day, despite all the external successes, has not been accomplished.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Took a walk in the woods just outside my place after night had fallen. The chilling wind blew, but sounded like a laugh of derision. The trees, with their crooked branches, forming a haunting silhouette with the starless sky as their backdrop, seemed to be whispering with one another, pointing their hands in mockery...

The Schubertian cry... I heard it in my head. The angst and the pain. I felt it. Ich habe genug! A heartwrenching scream!

A period of momentary silence. The wind stopped blowing and the leaves stopped moving. I had managed to come out of the woods after wandering in it mindlessly. How much time had passed? I didn't know. I guessed nothing mattered anymore.

How fitting. Just like the Schubertian introspective moments...

How apt. Floating around, floating around. Despite coming to the perfect cadence in bars 190 and 191, there isn't a sense of rest. Until the descending D minor arpeggio to the A minor chord. Seems to suggest a resignation to the harsh realities of life.

The imitation in the cello part seems to symbolise the slight aftershocks. And with a last breath, it rises up 3 octaves within two bars, sweeping everything away. Such poetry in the music. Reminds me of a poem by Emily Brontë...

It is too late to call thee now
I will not nurse that dream again
For every joy that lit my brow
Would bring its after-storm of pain

Besides the mist is half withdrawn,
The baren mountain-side lies bare
And sunshine and awaking morn
Paint no more golden visions there.

Yet ever in my grateful breast
Thy darling shade shall cherished be
For God alone doth known how blest
My early years have been in thee!

Just as the poem ending with a nostalgic exclamation of the beautiful past, the music is puntuated with the two last two chords with a nostalgic yet exaltant fortissimo.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Month Vacation

My fellow readers, I'll be going to Europe for a vacation for the next month. Finally, a chance to escape from this cage...

Shall talk more about it when I come back... =)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Spiritual Journey With Bach

Ich habe genug,
Ich habe den Heiland, das Hoffen der Frommen,
Auf meine begierigen Arme genommen;
Ich habe genug!

Ich hab ihn erblickt,
Mein Glaube hat Jesum ans Herze gedrückt;
Nun wünsch ich, noch heute mit Freuden
Von hinnen zu scheiden.

I have enough,
I have taken the Savior, the hope of the righteous,
Into my eager arms;
I have enough!

I have beheld Him,
My faith has pressed Jesus to my heart;
now I wish, even today with joy
To depart from here.

The above text is from the first aria from Bach's Cantata BWV 82 - Ich Habe Genug (I Have Enough). I didn't know what made me pick up a recording of this from my shelves last night and play it on my CD player. But I do know that just a mere first few bars into this piece, I felt an overwhelming sense of pathos to this most spiritual work. The first few bars alone gave an unmistakable idea that I was at a start of an intense spiritual journey. In certain sections of this aria, the music reaches a point of anguish and restraint, but not to the extent of losing that innately deep spiritual peace when having our hearts facing towards our Saviour.

How much I love the sound of the oboe d'amore played by Peggy Pearson and how captivating the unique tones of the voice, oboe d'amore, strings and the organ gives the entire work a most sombre quality. The static bass line used by Bach seems to restrain movement of the aria, seemingly to imply that death is eminent. Such a powerful and masterly manner Bach had used this device! I could go on and on about what I felt from just the first aria, but I guess I'll spare everyone of my excessive outpouring of emotions here.

I have to admit that so long after Serene had given this to me as a gift, I have been unable to see anything deep about this work until last night and thus chucked it aside for quite some time until
I felt an invisible urge to play the CD last night. A million thanks to Serene for this gift of a CD by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I'm now one of the victims of her amazing artistry. Such a gift of being able to make her music come to life. A quote by Peter Sellars, who did the staging of the two cantatas in the CD featuring BWV 82 and BWV 199.

Her voice is filling the room and you don’t know where it’s coming from… She is going right to the heart of a suffering person, not to increase the suffering, but to heal it, to release it, to offer some kind of balm… which is what her voice ends up doing. It can be piercing and shocking in its intensity, and then this incredible balm of compassion and tenderness, of generosity that is poured out of her voice like a kind of liquid that is there to heal.

Peter Sellars
A little background of this work for some who might be interested, taken from the programme booklet.

The passage of this piece is taken from Luke 2:22-32 and it focuses on Simeon, to whom it has been revealed by the Holy Ghost that "that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ." The work is then the contents of Simeon's beatific prayer:-

Luk 2:29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
Luk 2:30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Luk 2:31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
Luk 2:32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Such sincere words fixed to such sublime music. Such beauty.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

After Thoughts On A Rehearsal

After having the ensemble rehearsal, whereby we focussed on Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, in the afternoon today, I felt that there was much more about the music which could be milked from the work and I hadn't done the work justice earlier.

In comparison with several of his other piano sonatas, I do find this work pretty straightforward, in terms of its harmonic language and structure. Simplistic yet charmingly elegant nonetheless. It does give me a hint that Mozart had composed this work as a break while working on a bigger work.

Scanning through the musical notes in the entire work, it probably wouldn't be difficult to analyse through this entire work. But when it comes to playing it, I do find that it's quite musically taxing on guitarists, who are mostly playing solo music, to come together to work on a chamber work after not having much experience playing together. It's quite an achievement getting the rough shape of the first movement out, but there's still lots of work on the balance, whereby every musician in the ensemble has to be musically developed to know when to hold back to let the other voices sing and when their own voice ought to stand up and fly. I really hope that the layers would be more transparent and while playing coherently with the intention of bringing out the charming beauty of this work, each individual section of the ensemble will know when to take centre stage and allow their parts to fly with the support of other sections.

Being one of the most famous pieces of classical work around, I do feel quite a big pressure to shape up this work. It would be the most glaring to the audience when anyone of us makes a small mistake. Come to think of it, if this piece is played badly by us, the audience would probably think that guitar ensembles in general are overly ambitious to take on such a transcription. On the other hand, when a string ensemble messes this up, the audience would normally just dismiss the particular string ensemble involved as being incompetent. Truly hope that we can allow this charming work to take flight.

As regarding the process of interpretation in our ensemble, I do hope that everyone can see the entire beauty of the work. I'm sure disagreements in the interpretation of a particular work or passage would arise, but I hope to be able to put them up for discussion so that they will be ironed out with everyone being satisfied at the end of the day. Essentially, I hope that we can bring our audiences into an altered state when listening to our ensemble rendition of this charming serenade.

When it comes to chamber music, the group that comes into my mind is actually the Collegium Vocale Gent. I'll never forget the most intense experience I felt that night in the Esplanade Concert Hall when the small group of ensemble manage to touch the souls of their listeners with their masterful interpretations and pure sounds. I shan't blabber on about that again, but certainly hope that we can reach that level within the next few years.

I can't help but admit that I like this work more the Isaac Albeniz's Sevilla. Well, it isn't to justify why I didn't practise much on the latter recently, but I hope to be able to devote equal amount of dedication to the various ensemble works when I come back. Would be planning to work an hour or two daily on just ensemble pieces to ensure that my section would be musically mature and sensitive to our roles in all the various sections of the works as well.

**For those invisible readers who attended the rehearsal today, do give comments about this session so that everyone can know how to improve and focus on for the subsequent rehearsals after that. I'm not sure how receptive everyone is, but I certainly hope that it can kickstart the interpretation processes which is desperately needed by the music, not merely working on playing the notes individually every rehearsal.**

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Back At Home

After a few twists and turns of a mixture of Schubert, Mozart, Rodrigo and a few other lesser known composers, I found myself picking up Bach again. Beneath the Bachian structure and order hides a wealth of the most colourful emotions. Such blissful indulgence.

Upon my music stand now is the Gavotte from Bach's Lute Suite BWV 1006a. Come to think of it now, isn't that what I've worked through half a year back?!? The process of re-working through this music on my new instrument has revealed to me another level of beauty into the piece. It does seem technically overwhelming when beholding such musical depth into this work, especially when I have such a dying desire to bring out the beauty.

The campanella passages on the guitar sounded so charming! (Campanella is a composition device which involves the execution of an arpeggic passage of similar notes on several courses, more commonly known as strings today, of the instrument, resulting in a most charming confusion of tone colours. It is pioneered by the early baroque composers for the baroque guitar. If I don't recall wrongly, it was first mentiond by Luis Garcia-Abrines in his instruction for Spanish guitar playing.) I realised how much I had been missing out on with my previous ill-intoned instrument. Can't wait to pick up the Prelude of this Suite, which I've been putting aside due to my past inability to play those campella passages in tune (which can be incredibly irritating). And now, the smell of freedom, when I'm no longer restricted by my instrument.... How blessed I am, I'm so thankful!!

Hopefully that's a piece I can prepare in time for the musical soiree this coming Saturday with some fellow musician friends.

Like a musical work which starts in the tonic key and ends in a tonic key, I've landed back at Bach again, feeling all refreshed and at home again...

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Little Anguish

Been working on the first movement of the Arpeggione Sonata these few days. I managed to get the entire first movement out under my fingertips, and I'm currently shaping it up and getting myself ready for playing together with the accompaniment.

While running through the piece a few times, I always felt a little strange playing the first climax in the exposition section after the 2nd theme has been introduced. I kept running through that portion over and over again. At snail speeds, at leisurely speeds, at breakneck speeds, syncopatedly, with some rhythmic alteration, softly, loudly. Fought with my new guitar and tried so hard to wrench an anguished cry for the climax but the guitar just refused to co-operate. She was unbelievably nonchalant. Finally, I gave up and decided to give us a little more time to try and get along before working at it again. (Ivan, it might be the machinehead...)

In the meantime, I went back to the original urtext edition published by G. Henle Verlag for Violoncello and Piano and got a little surprise.

It's pretty unfortunate that the upper range of the arpeggione is a little too high for the guitar. Guess how did John Williams transcibe it. He actually changed that high C to a G (to suit the style of the running scalic passage before that) and the high Eb to a F# an octave lower (to prepare for the scalic passage the bar after). As such, the climatic point was prematured - 1 crochet and 1 semiquaver beat earlier. How frustrating... I guess it can't be helped, with the tonal range I am given on my instrument. But I can't get over the fact that it's the climax that has been tempered with. There're still other sections whereby the arpeggione part and the piano part has been switched due to the limitations of my instrument.

Can't help feeling a little indignant... Just hope that my new guitar can mature to be a little more co-operative soon...

Sorry, Schubert, for desecrating such a masterpiece of yours...

Friday, March 02, 2007

And Now For The Chaconne

I've been putting it off for too long a time, for fear of desecrating this magnificent masterpiece. Every session of analysing through this work in the past year or so often ended up in a regret that I am not technically proficient yet and also because of the lack a convincing instrument to bring out the beauty of this spiritual masterpiece. Right now, the latter hurdle has been cleared. I'll be be attempting to pick this up in the near future...

I could hear the first 8 bars resound in my head, beckoning me to walk closer...

Irresistible, not because of the fact that it is a monumental work, but because of its wealth of emotional values and lessons I've gained by listening to it and analysing it (though such attempts often left me more perplexed than enlightened, even with something as simple as the re-occurance of the subject itself).

The work itself is a long, arduous journey. Listening to it has been such an insightful, life-changing experience. What about the process of learning, shaping and mastering it? And then how does it feel when I have the piece to come out of me?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Picking An Instrument

Checked out that beauty again in the shop at Esplanade today and I was more enamoured with the charming singing voice of her than ever. I knew that was the instrument that I wanted for myself, especially after trying out a range of instruments from S$3k to S$7k at another shop a few days back. Finally, I've found my guitar! Beneath her humble price tag of slightly below S$3k hides a most mesmerising sound. Of course, being with a badly-intoned instrument for the past 3 years, I was desperate to make sure I choose one which has a flawless intonation. As such, my requirements running through my head were as follows: flawless intonation, pure and refined voices from the lowest registers to the highest registers (I didn't believe I would come across such an instrument at this price range until I tried this instrument), versatility (a silky, velvety sound or a stunningly brilliant sound whenever the music calls for that sort of tone colour), a sound which seems to blossom over distance, a pure sound that allows the soft passages to project beautiful across a distance, responsive to the slightest changes in pressure and contact. Not to mention that the instrument has to be aesthetically pleasing as well. The beauty in the shop actually possess all of these rare qualities, at such a price.

Thanks to the immense generosity of Ivan, my fellow ensemble musician, and the kindness of the ladies tending the shop, I was able to get the beauty back home by paying for it with installments. Finally, a dream instrument to call my own! Shall work doubly hard on my technical and musical aspects to be a worthy owner of this instrument.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

On The Arpeggione Again

I just received a note by Dr. Osamu Okumura, the president of the Arpeggione Society in Japan. What a pleasant coincidence that I'm actually working now on Schubert's most beautiful Arpeggione Sonata.

It's amazing how the only currently existing piece of music written for this instrument has piqued the curiosity of so many people around the world, to the extent of re-constructing this obsolete instrument. If I have a chance, I would certainly love to try out this instrument and learn to play this masterpiece this historical instrument. I had written an entry on this instrument when I was first seduced by the immense beauty of this work. Thankfully, the range of the arpeggione that is used in this work falls just barely within the range of the guitar that I am able to try my hands on such a gem and incorporate it into my repertoire.

No groundbreaking compositional techniques or strange harmonies used, but just simply charming. It isn't like Bach whereby I'm continually discovering new things about the works, but somehow, I can never get bored listening or playing this work, probably due to its seamless blend of a wide spectrum of emotions in such most poetic manner...

I'm still in the midst of studying this work. Analysing the entire harmonic structure and texture of this work. A not-so-easy task with the arpeggione being an obsolete instrument. But by studying his works which he had composed in the same period of his life, it does help me understand his style in this Arpeggione Sonata a lot more thoroughly.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


I do believe that for most people, at some point of time or another, a random piece of music would start playing in their minds, probably as a subconscious reflection of what they're currently feeling.

I never could quite truly understand the value of the first movement of Bach's Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin, BWV 1001, until tonight as I was walking home. Incidentally, this movement started playing on my mind just as I was on the way back earlier. Of all the music which would most possibly start playing randomly on my mind, this piece would probably rank as one of the least probable ones.

If you had asked me what I thought about this Adagio movement before today, I could never be able to comment more than the fact that it was deeper than what I was able to appreciate of it. A powerful and expressive improvisational touch with an unpredictable yet deeply emotional melodic line. I had naively believed that this movement would have been better composed with a more formal structure in order to retain its emotional value while preparing for the magical Fugue that comes. (Big talk from someone who doesn't have any gift of composition) Just twenty minutes ago, I was made to realise that this movement could never have been better.

In this movement, the unpredictability of the melody really is the eventual creation of one who laments the vulnerability of life to uncontrolled external circumstances. Such rich harmonies, conceived ahead of his time, further intensify the feeling of helplessness. Those numerous trills that scatter themselves all over the movement gives one the feeling of an unnatural suspension in mid-air. Not the sort of certain trills which resemble the sounds of nature, of birds singing. And not to mention that some of their resolutions aren't completely smooth and doesn't make one feel at home. And seemingly, after a most spiritual journey, one finds himself back on the same spot as he has started. Spending our lifetime walking in circles?

Somehow, I have a sudden craving to hear some Erik Satie. An atmosphere of a certain sadness and indifference... ending up in a completely foreign place at the end...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Oldest Existing Music?

Check this out.

For most of them who stubbornly believe the harmony was non-existent until nearly 2000 years ago... Wouldn't the most spiritual harmony of nature itself inspire humans to make music with harmony right from the first day of creation? And a 7-note scale existing even then...

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Closer Look

*Note written after the completion of this entry*
An initial apology for the lazy and disorganised attempt at the review of the student concert...

Thankfully, the student concert went really well today. It was probably due my participation in the International Guitar Festival a month ago that made me appreciate the sheer amount of sleepless nights, missed meals and co-ordination to organise a concert. I really wanted to help out as much as I could to relieve the stress off Auntie Mei, even at the expense of straining myself a little before my item.

It was a pretty nerve-wrecking start, when fellow performers forgot their music or played a couple of wrong notes which sound like Schoenberg. Such instances sure encouraged the invasion of a dark thought that such instances would happen during my item as well, though I sure didn't voice it out loud like a few pretty amusing fellow performers in my same row. (On a minor note to avoid misconceptions, those ladies gave marvellous performances later on in the concert.)

Thanks to Guan Lin's most moving rendition of the largo and moderato cantabile sections of Chopin's famous Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66, Nikki's ability to draw out the rich and colourful sonorities of the piano through Sibelius's Romanze in Db maj, Serene's charming performance of Schubert's famous Ständchen. the hauntingly evocative harmonies of Arensky's Impromptu played by Ursula and Omela's distinctively Spanish though slightly unstable rendition (probably due to nerves) of Albéniz's delightful Castilla from his Suite Espanola, that I could indulge in to calm my nerves down a little before my performance.

As I walked up on stage, I was slightly more concerned about the coming interval instead of my performance as I needed the toilet. As I started off the Tango, in the Allegro Moderato section, I was struggling to keep the rhythmic tempo of the tango for the dancers in the nightclub, in the midst of the various technical demands which has to be executed seamlessly while keeping the pulse of the tango going. It was the Lento section whereby I was momentarily transported as a time traveller and ghost spectator to the nightclub scene in Buenos Aires in the 1930s. And I had a crash transition from ending of that section to the recapitulation as my impotent fingers decided not to form that chord shape which has a magical effect of bringing the listener back to the dance floor. Well, as for the last section, I was half indulging in the stylistic delivery of the tango (thankfully no longer struggling), and half thinking about the toilet. How glamorous...

Well, for the later half of the concert, the two items which got me mesmerised were Aminah's most alluring French Horn performance and Guan Lin's sincere interpretation of The Romance of the Butterfly Lovers for piano. I was almost knocking myself on my head when I realised that I didn't have the chance to have Guan Lin as my accompanist for my exam because I had postponed it for a season.

All in all, it was a truly lovely afternoon of music, though marred by a not so appreciative audience and numerous mistakes probably caused by nerves. I could concentrate better on stage now, but I realised that I'm losing my tolerance for an audience who can't keep still and quiet in the most crucial and surreal moments of the music. We ought to have compulsory tranquilizers for such people...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Such Honesty

It just struck me while I was going through some passages in Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata. (Please pardon me if I have been rambling on and on about this work for the past few weeks, months or even years. I'm continually unearthing something new every single time I pick up this work to study) Just from this small work of Schubert alone, he has exhibited such honesty in expressing and portraying the vulnerability and longing of each human soul in music. It really doesn't attempt to hide or dramatise anything. No pretension. No unnecessary superficial ornaments. No deception. Just a simple, forthright yet poignant presentation of such aspects of the human soul....

Oh, thank you so much, Schubert...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Performance Anxiety

"I had discovered the stage fright drug Inderal, or propanolol, which blocks the receptor site for adrenaline. Unlike anxiety medication like Valium, Inderel lessens physical symptoms without affecting the brain. I'd gotten mine over the counter in Ecuador, but Inderel is best prescribed by a doctor. Too many sends people with low blood pressure or asthma into a tailspin. But at least my nerves wouldn't flare up."
-Blair Tindell in Mozart in the Jungle

Flamenco guitarist Juan Martin deals with it by downing a glass of red wine minutes before stepping onto the stage and some artistes require bananas which contains some muscle-relaxation substances.

I have noticed that quite a number of professional musicians who rely heavily on such drugs like Inderel for their career and at the same time, several people who have commented that musicians who requires such drugs shouldn't even be performing at all. Apparently some harsh and critical comments they have there. It does seem that they relate a musician's right to perform to whether they take the drugs or not. Aren't their inherent musicality and musical accomplishments sufficient to justify their place on the concert stage? It's a pity when one looks back in history and realises that the devil had struck the king of Bach, Glenn Gould, with severe performance anxiety which forced him away from the concert stage.

I personally am blessed with a mild performance anxiety. More often than not, it does escalate a little more than which I would prefer but bananas would usually solve the problem. I do find that a slight anxiety, when my body releases a slight rush of adrenaline, is helpful in performance. It really does help when I can switch into an altered state without much difficulty. Simply an deep analysis of the musical work away from my instrument would throw me into an altered state, whereby I'm oblivious of everything else including time which bounds the majority of entire human race. However, on important performance occasions, I do bring a small dosage of Inderel with me, just to be prepared for the sudden, uncontrolled surge in adrenaline that I might have. I have never felt a need to use it though as bananas usually do the job of eliminating the minute shivering of the fingers which can heavily cripple a guitarist when a slight misjudgment of the frets or strings can cause the entire piece to break down or snap me out of my altered state.

All in all, I do certainly wish that Inderel shouldn't be treated with disdain by those blessed ones who do not require it. Although I do not rely on it as my main remedy to curb those fight or flight response symptoms, I do recognise its importance to fellow musicians who are crippled without it. Not that I would encourage it, but it should be administered with a doctor's advice to those who are severely affected by nerves.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Different Touch

I'm working on a few pieces recently, and in the midst of hopping between the pieces during my practice, I have found myself having very contrasting touch when approaching those pieces. It isn't very much an initial, conscious effort to produce that particular touch required for the music which is placed on the stand in front of me. To discover more about this (un)natural phenomenon, I dived into my inner world and tracked my subconscious way of functioning closely. Two pieces. Astor Piazzolla's Verano Porteño and Franz Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata.
As I take on the former, which is in the form of an Argentinian Tango, the sounds which I draw from my instrument are naturally raw compared to some mainstream classical works. I find myself visualising myself dancing, and upon reaching the offbeat accents, I would whisk my partner in an exciting and quick turn around the dance floor. It's probably due to my subconscious acknowledgment of the more exciting and surprising nature of those accents that gives rise to the raw touch.

In the latter, I was working on the first movement. Even if the music comes to an intense climax, I find the sounds which I attempt to caress from my instrument are well rounded and refined, seemingly trying to present those emotional moments in a more palatable and most poetic manner. In the sections leading up to those intense moments of the music, my fingers produced their most delicate touch and attempt an elegant dance above the strings. Dramatic still of course (as what Schubert would like to express), but in a special blend with musical poetry in the passages (as his usual distinctive style).

It certainly seems that the knowledge of the composers' lives, their compositional style and the societies in which they were living in does contribute to these subtle yet important variations in touch when playing their music. Passages with an almost similar texture and even harmonic progressions have different significances in different works and thus, are treated differently.

P.S: I would like to express my gratitude to a fellow musician based in Brazil, Xan, for helping me out with the pronunciation of Piazzolla's Verano Porteño and for all the information of the Latin American music which he has given me. That certainly helped in my interpretation and understanding of the music.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Sound Of A Höfner

The Höfner guitar which stands in the Esplanade shop came up in our conversations again. I could still hear the deeply captivating sounds of that guitar even after my last encounter with it was more than a week back.

Just one of the three guitars that stands in that strings shop, the sound of it shines above all the guitars in the neighbouring guitar shop. The unmistakable heart-stirring basses of a German guitar, and the clear trebles that sings like a human voice. One look into the construction of the guitar reveals nothing new or special compared to the traditional fan bracing of Spanish instrument, neither is the back of the guitar made up of the best Brazilian rosewood (in fact just the common Indian rosewood), and it still intrigues the seasoned guitarists in the group that how the guitar can still sound so extraordinary.

If I have only five words to describe the sounds of this German Höfner, they'll be resonant, pure, refined, powerful and responsive.

It still falls short to traditional powerhouses like Paulino Bernabe and Manuel Contreras, but this is definitely a steal at such a price. No extra cost for banned wood, experimental ideas, just pure workmanship alone.