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...

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.