Saturday, October 04, 2008

Internal Chemical Reactions

"Do you think music has the power to change people? Like you listen to a piece and go through some major change inside?"

Oshima nodded. "Sure, that can happen. We have an experience - like a chemical reaction - that transforms something inside us. When we examine ourselves later on, we discover that all the standards we've lived by have shot up another notch and the world's opened up in unexpected ways. Yes, I've had that experience. Not often, but it has happened. It's like falling in love."

-From Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Bayreuther Festspiele 2008

The dates of this year's Bayreuther Festspiele are out. It runs from 25th July to 28th August.

25 July Parsifal I
26 July Tristan I
27 July Meistersinger I
28 July Rheingold I
29 July Walküre I
31 July Siegfried I
02 August Götterdämmerung I
03 August Parsifal II
04 August Meistersinger II
05 August Tristan II
06 August Parsifal III
07 August Meistersinger III
08 August Rheingold II
09 August Walküre II
10 August Parsifal
11 August Siegfried II
13 August Götterdämmerung II
14 August Tristan III
15 August Meistersinger IV
16 August Parsifal V
17 August Siegfried
18 August Tristan IV
19 August Meistersinger V
20 August Rheingold III
21 August Walküre III
23 August Siegfried III
25 August Götterdämmerung III
26 August Tristan V
27 August Meistersinger VI
28 August Parsifal VI

Wolfgang Wagner has announced his resignation as the director of the festival on 29th April 08, according to news reports. It is still unsure of who will take over him yet, as the festival committee has yet to choose a candidate.

Friday, March 21, 2008


I might have found a new favourite after Michelle Kwan.

There seems to be a lot of dispute over the judges' results in the short program. I think there may some biasness involved, but I really don't wish to judge. Carolina Kostner wasn't really so bad, but in my opinion, Mao Asada was simply sublime this year.

Her short program for this year's ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2008 plunged me straight into an altered state within the first few seconds of her performance. From this short program alone, she has truly excelled herself. So much more musical, so much more elegant than her previous showings in her previous tournaments. Excellent program, excellent costume, excellent music.

I am waiting to watch her free skating program, where she came in second too, after Yu-Na Kim.

But it's all well for now, knowing that she has the gold this year...

Monday, March 03, 2008

Between Wagner & Tango

I had my recess week last week. Had intended to sit through a listening of a Wagner opera last week, but apparently, I was too distracted by tango to sit quietly in my room for just that couple of hours. A bad substitute in terms of musical depth, but surprisingly, I enjoyed myself as much as I would have if I had studied Wagner, or maybe even more...

I'm feeling a little hungry for some Wagner right now though...

Monday, February 18, 2008

On Brahms and a Waitress...

It was a quiet day in Hamburg. With his flight in the late evening, he had a couple of hours more to roam the city. He walked into a Café and found himself a seat by the window to watch the city pass by his window.

„Guten Tag, möchten Sie etwas bestellen?“

He looked up to see the source of the sweetest voice he had heard ever since he arrived in this city. He was greeted by the sight of this young, charming girl with the most exquisite facial features. The floral fragrance of her flowing, velvety hair stunned him momentarily before he regained control of his faculties to process her words.

„Oh, ich nehme eine Tasse Kaffee und ein Stück Schokoladenkuchen, bitte. Danke.“

The waitress gave him a saccharine smile before returning to the counter to work on his order. As he gazed at the waitress as she walked away, he heard the music of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 play in the background, a work which he had heard a couple of times but could never really appreciate. By a quirk of nature, as the opening theme played, he experienced a moment of musical epiphany. It all made sense to him now. It was music parallel to what he had just experienced.

Like the waitress who made a resounding entrance, the 1st horn sounded a beautifully innocent theme and before it all ended, the piano emerged from the depths of its lowest registers, seemingly like a deep and heartfelt response to the horn theme, rising to the higher registers. Wait, a response? No! The piano couldn’t help it, but mould itself into a beatific perfect cadence using the very last five notes of the horn theme.

The horn came in again, first in an inversion, followed by the same notes just an interval of a second lower. Irresistibly, the piano found itself echoing the last five notes of the theme again. Oh gosh, what was this waitress doing to him?

In a dreamlike state while waiting for the same waitress to send his food and drink, he was interrupted by another waiter, who sent his chocolate cake and coffee instead.

The piano broke into the lush soundscape with a dramatic cadenza of dissonance, intensified later by the use of cross-rhythms between both hands. What an emotionally volatile afternoon! He wondered if it was the waitress, or simply the music of Brahms.

He decided to focus his attention back to the city outside the window, in an attempt to maintain homeostasis. It was a lazy afternoon, without much activity out in the streets. This time, it was a new theme of a pastoral nature introduced by the violins.

As he stared dreamily at the streets outside, his thoughts drifted back to inner soul. Barely ten minutes in an apparently serene Café and it was getting much too intense for him. In his line of sight, a pair of lovers walked past his window. Subconsciously, he flirted with the idea of the waitress and him being a couple, before he realised what he was thinking. What poisonously inexorable yet undeniably sweet thoughts! As the music played, the new section, supposedly made up of new material, still contained notes from the opening theme. It was a most welcoming invasion of the theme, which Brahms had never forgotten. The music progressed on, with his soul being drawn deeper into it, and of course, his thoughts. Throughout the entire movement, Brahms had playfully hidden the opening theme which appeared in the most unexpected moments and places. The theme donned on a myriad of colourful costumes, and in its many facets, a different aspect of its beauty is exposed. It was just the right theme for this beautiful waitress he met. A true beautiful woman will look beautiful in anything, for each costume will accentuate a different aspect of her beauty…

It was time to head to the airport. He walked towards the entrance, not before turning back for the moment to steal a look at the angelic girl for the last time. He made a check of his luggage before taking a cab to the airport. He closed his eyes on the cab, indulging in his thoughts. Though the music had long ended, it was fresh on repeat mode in his mind, together with the mental images which he had taken of this beautiful girl in the birth city of Brahms. He was, after all, just a passing visitor…

Monday, February 11, 2008

I Am an Amateur...

I have spoken to many people about art (covering much more than simply music itself), from people who have no idea what is art to artistic professionals who do it for a living. In those conversations, I notice myself advocating the approach of art in the spirit of an amateur, even to professionals.

More often than not, I lament the fact that many aspiring musicians would be increasingly critical of the smallest mistakes as they become better in their art. Probably in a self-assuring attempt to prove that they are more musically sensitive and aware. I myself am not spared from such a tendency and I do have to continually remind myself to cast away such a malicious approach to art and retain the purest spirit of an amateur.

Amateur. As the term itself originally suggests, it is not simply about the Art itself, but doing it solely for the love of it. Beethoven, despite being (near) deaf, had attended 11-year-old Liszt’s concert in 1823 and praised him for his performance. Had he encouraged the young virtuoso based on the little or even none which he had heard, or was it more for the passion which he had seen and felt in the prodigy? Beethoven hadn’t earned much for his compositions as well, but it doesn’t take much to see that he was not writing for money. He hadn’t connected well with Rossini’s or rather, Italian opera in general, because they lacked something which he personally valued so deeply. If he had wanted to compose for money, coming up with a comical opera wouldn’t have been much of a problem for him. Even as a professional composer who was continually struck by financial issues, he would never compromise on what he wanted to express through his music to appeal to the masses superficially. Evident in all which he had left behind, his music was not simply a product of a professional duty, but more of that exhibiting an immense love not simply for music, but for life itself. Daniel Barenboim had recognised music is not an end in itself, but a means to understand life (in his 2006 Reith Lectures) and reconcile people (in the setting up of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra). It was this certain quality in these great artists which had touched me and it is this which I want to give away by encouraging artistic appreciation and good taste in the spirit of an amateur.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Eighth Annual Weblog Awards (2008)

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise has been nominated for the best weblog for music. If you truly enjoy his articles, blog and of course, his book (a must-read!), make your way down to vote for him here!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Intense Lyricism

Having to acquaint myself with Mahler's colossal Symphony No. 3 in a day and a half is no mean feat. The approximately-90-minute long work (longest among all his symphonies) can be incredibly beautiful and taxing on the same time when I listen to two full runs in the same day. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra will be having a local premiere of this transcendental masterpiece this Saturday evening, and of course, I've grabbed a first class seat for this concert. I'll probably be doing a review of this concert as well, which will also be for an essay required in a module which I'm taking in university. (As you may have inferred, the essay is secondary here. Screw the academic essays, my appreciation of the concert comes first.)

Besides a decadent indulgence in Mahler today, I got to listen to a couple of my favourite works later in the evening in a most insightful masterclass by Keng Yuen Tseng, the Yong Siew Toh Chair in Violin at the Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University. He is no doubt a most passionate mentor who goes the extra mile just to draw out the best out of the students.

A very young and talented violinist, whom I shall name PonytailGirl here, started off the masterclass with one of my favourite Schubert pieces, Sonatina in D (D. 384). It was quite a surprise and relief knowing that this piece is on the masterclass list of music, especially after having a lunch date with a megalomaniac Mahler (of course, an exceptional megalomaniac with an immense depth). It isn't a big work, but a beautiful and precious gem among Schubert's output nonetheless. That's some more passionate lyricism for me after two full runs of Mahler 3rd! The insightful advice by Keng Yuen Tseng did much to draw out an additional depth to PonytailGirl's already beautiful interpretation of the music. Despite being well acquainted with Schubert's music for the past three years of my life, it's simply surprising how I still manage to gain new insights to a Schubert work which I have listened to on countless occasions.

SloppyLookingBoy played the dramatically lyrical 1st movement of Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major (Op. 77). I was hoping that his playing wouldn't be as sloppy as he was dressed, but unfortunately, it wasn't so. Still, it was quite a mean feat for a student to complete the entire 1st movement which was unbelievably demanding, given the fact that Brahms wasn't a violinist and didn't understand much about the violin to write a violin concerto. Thankfully, I was enamored by something else throughout his masterclass session - the accompaniment. SloppyLookingBoy's accompanist played the accompaniment for PonytailGirl as well. Both pieces were of contrasting characters, despite both being romantic pieces, which were still deeply rooted in the classical style. Schubert was mostly light, lyrical and uplifting while Brahms was mostly deep, dramatic and dark. The sensitivity which she exhibited was nothing short of mind-blowing. In Schubert, she was an equal with the violin. The chemistry between both instruments was immensely captivating. In Brahms, she was the orchestra. Her fingers drew out the timbres of the various instrumentation as much as the Steinway allowed. It caught my attention in this particular piece due to the orchestration of Brahms. His beautiful melodic lines didn't belong solely to the solo violin, but to various important orchestral instruments as well, notably the oboe, cellos and double basses. The various charming melodic lines were handled with the utmost sensitivity by the accompanist. At the same time, she took extra care not to overpower SloppyLookingBoy and accommodated the most awkward tempo changes by SloppyLookingBoy with extreme delicacy. In some cases when the violin took centre stage, she was an empty vessel, helping the violin to shine by absorbing SloppyLookingBoy's style completely. In other cases when she had her solo parts, her musicality and depth were nothing short of breathtaking. It was a rare epiphanic moment when I witnessed such musicality and depth being summoned and repressed at will in order to help the soloist to shine. That was truly a first class accompanist whom I had come across this evening.

The third was IndulgentGirl, who played Wieniawski's Violin Concerto No. 2 in D min (Op. 22). I always have an unexplained fascination for Polish composers, besides Chopin. Ironically, it wasn't Chopin who started this unexplained fascination with Polish composers (he is in a class of his own), but Henryk Górecki with his Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Op. 36). I'll leave this work to another time or I'll spend an additional 3 hours in front of my computer. Subsequently, it was Krzysztof Penderecki, with his Symphony No. 7 (Seven Gates of Jerusalem) and Threnody. Not forgetting Karol Szymanowski with his 2 Violin Concertos. I got acquainted with Wieniawski in the midst of this period of fascination with Polish composers and I fell in love with a couple of his works since then. This Violin Concerto No. 2 is one of them and it's a most pleasant surprise to have it on the masterclass list this evening and also to end my day with. IndulgentGirl was technically proficient and musically mature, and it was a pleasure to hear her perform this entire work this evening. It was just different having this masterpiece being performed live! The experience was completely breathtaking (despite having the orchestra being reduced to a piano part on a Steinway) and it sounds like a completely new work to me, with the resonation of the violin penetrating straight into my soul. Recorded music is just different, no matter how good my speakers are.

All in all, it was a musically, emotionally and spiritually demanding yet immensely satisfying day, with all the music which I was deeply drawn into. Now that I'm penning all my reflections down well after midnight with just the quiet sounds of the night in the background, I realise the musical journey which I have randomly embarked on today was simply strange. From Austrian and German composers and, finally ending with a lesser known but no less beautiful Polish masterpiece...