Book : Under the Sky (Chinese)

In conjunction with Read! Singapore (2013), the National Library Board published a series of books called Under the Sky in four languages – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. These all come with audiobooks.

I was introduced to the Chinese stories at an Audiobooks Sharing Session at the Ang Mo Kio library yesterday. The story we read and listened to was “Two Luggages” by Zhou Chang, a Cultural Medallion receipient and a retired Chinese Language teacher.

People listen to audiobooks for various reasons. We listened to the CD while following the text. Other than learning the correct pronunciation of a few rarely used characters, I think it would be more expedient to read the whole book than to listen to it.

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Piano Masterclass by Dina Parakhina

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Today’s Masterclass was conducted by a professor from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Moscow, Russia. It was held at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the students played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21.

Liszt : Concerto No 1 in E flat

To bring home her point, Prof Dina explained, demonstrated on the piano, and hummed the theme repeatedly (I counted no less than 8 times for the first phrase and 5 or 6 times for the second phrase) to show the pensive mood of the opening bars.

She exhorted the need to “stay on top of the hill of a beautiful landscape” and to “change pedal” accordingly. It is important not to rush but “expand and enjoy” as the music needs a “beautiful, colourful, sonorous sound” like a soprano. The body should lean or push to be with the melody, like how the violin bows must be connected to produce a beautiful arch, feeling the air.

Prof Dina did not just demonstrate from her piano, but also moved to the student’s piano to show her how to draw different lengths of sound, and how to project the sonority such as likening piu dolce to a reflection or like putting colour on painting, then on top of that, varnishing. Prof Dina also repeatedly implore the student: “Imagine you have to sing this” or “Imagine this is the orchestra”. She emphasised that repeated sounds close to each other should be played differently, and went on to play in unison with the student but differently. She also commented that the playing should be consistent and convincing; it is essential to connect every sound, otherwise the music doesn’t make sense. She noted the inner parts were absent in the student’s performance and asked her to imagine the cellos were playing. Prof Dina also remarked that while fingering is a matter of individual choice, there are certain rules to ensure best results; otherwise, too much is wasted, as was the case here.

In the final section, Prof Dina singled out the grace notes. She urged the student to think of the orchestra entrance; reminding her that grace notes are upbeats and should be played using a little more ‘biting’ fingers. Here, there is crescendo everywhere and the passage should be mighty; there must be a certain way and direction, for example the sforzando must make sense. there should be no displaced emphasis but a consistency of increased intensity so that enough room is given to get faster and faster.

Due to time constraints, Prof Dina left a lot unsaid but had earlier made a lot of pencil markings in the student’s score. Even as an observer, I found this session very helpful and beneficial.

Chopin : Concerto No2 in F minor

The first comments Prof Dina made must have sounded quite harsh to the student: “the performance was not engaging, obviously mentally and emotionally struggling with stage presence; there were memory lapses and the playing was too fast. It is imperative to be clear of the reasons, otherwise there would be no chance to say certain things in the passage.”

Prof Dina emphasised that the pianist’s entrance in the first movement (high D flats in unison, after 70 bars of orchestral music) is very important so it should be even stronger to draw attention to that.

Chopin’s music require Rubato all the way and pedalling is a very serious issue here. The music cannot be neutral; it is very personal! That this concerto is written in a minor key is not accidental; it is symbolic, and more sonority is needed but Prof Dina found this student’s playing a little too shallow. (I agree.)

Any musical phrase has a musical direction, and the language of harmony is very important. Prof Dina took pains to explain the different chords, harmony and pedalling. She first asked the student: Are you in good spirits? Are you willing to work hard? She then went on to say that the student had a serious issue  of grace notes and all the directions are ambiguous. She took pains to demonstrate and explain this in length.

There is no composer like Chopin; so to be indifferent in Chopin is a sacrilege. Chopin’s music is like a personal diary and he has a very personal message that he wants to convey in his concerto so the pianist must be sincere! The professor’s advice was to pedal every single sound of the melody so that when it’s distant, it’s sonorous and when it’s near, it’s clear.

The orchestra is almost non-existant in Chopin, but they are waiting for their turns. Prof Dina had to point out so many details the student missed; she had to state the obvious because it needed to be done. It is important to note even the places where it is necessayr to take a breath! Here, when Prof Dina played the orchestra reduction for the student, she (Prof Dina) stole all our attention! There was a huge, massive difference in their playing.

Prof Dina kept imploring the student to take breaths where necessary and to analyse each phrase and to note that every single sound has meaning and expression. She again commented that the pedalling was too thick, that it should be much more economical, otherwise a lot of harmony is crushed.

Prof Dina also declared that a student must not attend class without knowing the meaning of con anima (towards the last part of the first (Maestoso) movement and Larghetto (the second) movement. She commented that the Larghetto was played too fast and hence didn’t make any sense. (I totally agree here.)

Indeed, Prof Dina was “not a nasty lady” but only wanted to “persuade the student to dig deeper and have more control”. She insisted her comments were very friendly criticisms but noted that there was a barrier that didn’t allow the student to express herself as she did not even shape the phrases.

Prof Dina’s concluding remarks was food for thought for everyone present:

Why does Chopin bother to write this or that?

Why does everybody play the E minor (first) concerto and not the F minor (today’s) concerto? (Answer: It is not easy to play the No 2.)

Chopin’s music contain ever-changing expression so it is important to LISTEN. In Chopin, all passage work is more vocal and not merely technical. One has to love music to get inspired; and not only does the pianist have to love it, she must share it with others, therefore she needs to show it.

Book: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

I discovered Jodi Picoult when I watched ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ some years age. Since then, I’ve read all her nineteen novels.  Leaving Time is her latest, the twentieth book. I’m awed by her ability in producing such a myriad of characters, riveting plots and rich prose! Not one of her novels is like any other she has written before. She obviously does extensive research on each topic before the creative writing process. I marvel at how she can write each novel in several voices. The voices in Leaving Time are:

Jenna Metcalf, daughter of Alice

Alice Metcalf, a scientist who studies grief among elephants

Serenity Jones, a psychic

Virgil Stanhope, a jaded private detective

This book is fiction, but the plight of elephants is real. Jodi Picoult crafts her story from real-life studies and insights.

Jenna and her mother were separated when Jenna was three years old. For more than a decade, Jenna has never stopped thinking about her nother. In her search for her mother, Jenna enlists the help of Serenity and Virgil, and together they realise that in asking hard questions, they will have to face even harder answers. There is an enexpected twist towards the end of the story, and like all Jodi Picoult novels, as soon as the last page has been turned, I wish there is another Jodi Picoult story to read. Her stories are always plausible and imbues with important ideas. She is one of the most impressive authors I’ve come across.

Theatre: Chinglish

I bought a ticket to Chinglish, a play by Pangdemonium, as soon as bookings were made available. My interest was piqued on several counts:

1) it is a bilingual comedy about language and cultural miscommunication (one of my pet topics),

2) my favourite actor, the thespian Adrian Pang,

3) well-loved veteran TV host Guo Liang.

Then, when the newspapers gave its gala performance rave reviews (I read FOUR!), I started counting the days (TEN) before I could watch the show. I was not disappointed.

Before curtains rose, an actress (Audrey Luo) came to the front of the stage and spoke in China-accented English on the house Rules and Regulations (eg ‘switch off phone’, ‘don’t take pictures’). It was done in such a refreshing and humorous way that only boded well for the rest of the performance! (Really, it was full house and not a single phone rang and not a single photo flash took place. Amazing!)

When the curtains went up, I was so impressed with the stage decoration that I did not blink for a long while. The set was just beautiful! Then, in the course of the play, I found that the set had a revolving stage floor that ensured smooth transitions between scenes, together with multimedia screens cleverly built into the backdrop. The background music chosen were nice and appropriate too, especially “The Moon Represents My Heart” at the end.

The term “chinglish” refers to the bizarre Chinese-to-English translations that tickles, such as “Slip and fall down carefully”, “Deformed Man’s Toilet” and “Please don’t touch yourself, let us help you to try out”. While poking fun at ignorances of language, this play also looks at the gulf between cultures.

This play, written by Tony Award-award winning Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang, looks at the breakdown in communication that happens when an American businessman (Daniel Jenkins) goes to China to resurrect his family-run sign-making business. He realises that what is lost in translation is not just language, but also culture. In Guiyang, he meets the Culture Minister (Adrian Pang), his vice-minister (Oon Shu Ann), a Briton who has lived in China so long that he is fluent in its language and its ways (Matt Grey), an ambitious magistrate (Guo Liang) and a trio of bewildereing translators (Audrey Luo in multiple roles).

I was very impressed by Grey’s Mandarin, which was as good as, if not better than, Adrian Pang’s. I was also very impressed by Luo (this was the first time I watched her performance) and I will make it a point to attend her future performances.

I did not get enough of Guo Liang (whose character came on only in the last hour of the play) and Adrian Pang. (I never get enough of Pang, anyway.) This was their first collaboration; I hope there will be more!

Piano Masterclass by Jean-Yves Thibaudet

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Jean-Yves Thibaudet conducted a second masterclass for piano majors at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music on 12 October 2015. (The first was in 2007.)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet is my favourite French pianist, and his 2007 recording of the CD, Aria – Opera Without Words is one of my favourites. It features aria transcriptions, some of which are Thibaudet’s own. He was the soloist for the soundtracks of the films Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, all of which I watched and enjoyed.

The first student to play was Yap Sin Yee (B. Mus, Year 4), who impressed me with her performance last Friday (detailed in the post Concert: Piano, 9 Oct 2015). Incidentally, Thibaudet would be performing the complete collection (Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs) in his recital on the evening of 13 October 2015.

After Yap played Noctuelles (“Night Moths”), Thibaudet commented that her playing came across as beautiful, both in colour and atmosphere. As I brought along the music scores, I was amazed to see the incredible amount of details, not just the copious amount of notes but also the dynamics and pedalling. And each time Thibaudet made a comment, he would demonstrate by playing; for example, how to play the opening with a different colour, how to give more importance to certain notes when the harmony is not so interesting, how to start an ascending running passage at pianissimo and do a diminuendo (instead of a crescendo), how to be careful with pedalling at ppp sections, how to play with more rubato, how more contrasting dynamics are needed in the ‘Pas trop lent’ section, how phrases needed to be warmer and more expressive, and how the staccato of the last note musst not be too short. Every now and then, he would comment that music is almost like the human voice, and he would hum the melody and show how these can be sung by the fingers, including the notes of the inner voice as it gives the music another dimension. He showed where and how to change pedals for the best effect and he demonstrated how to make a better phrase. I was mesmerised watching how amazing clusters of  notes just flowed from Thibaudet’s fingers!

Yap then played Une Barque sur l’ocean (“a boat on the sea”) and Thibaudet commented that the sound was really so beautiful that he had very little to say. He felt she did a wonderful tremolo in the right hand and that the running passages were incredible. There were additional tips on how to make a difference between piannisimo vs piano the second time around while still singing both the top note and the inner voice and at the same time keep the rhythm going, and how to make a little magic like including bell-like effects and how to do a pppp ending. Of course, he played the piano to demonstrate all his points. It was almost like watching him rehearse for the recital!

It was a real treat to hear Nguyen LeBinh Anh (B.Mus, Year 2) play Cesar Franck’s (1822-1890) Variations Symphonique! I was already so impressed, (because when I first heard this piece played by another student I didn’t like it but this time I did), yet Thibaudet’s first comment was to “play it with a little more presence and don’t be shy”. He proceeded to show what he meant. I was blown away! He really gave another meaning to “more meat”, and showed how to make a sound bigger or smaller where necessary. Thibaudet also played the orchestra reduction for Nguyen at some places, and sang the inner parts at other places. Thibaudet’s passion for music could be felt when he started to sway to the music when Nguyen played, imploring him to “go all out and sing with full passion” at the passionato section. There were playful moments in the music too. As with Yap, whenever Thibaudet made a comment, like “make a voice” or “sing the left hand” or “take a deep breath before a big chord” or “think in long phrases” or “show contrast when getting from fortissimo to pianossimo” or “don’t rush”, he would demonstate on the piano by playing the said sections. Simply wonderful!

The final piece for the day was Franz Liszt’s (1811-1886) Piano Concerto No 1 in E-flat major, S. 124 played by Dolpiti Kongviwatanakul (B. Mus, Year 2). As with the previous piece, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the performance, but Thibaudet requested “bigger sound” and proceeded to demonstrate. He did not just play the opening, but also showed how to use the body effectively to achieve the desired effect. Pedalling is tricky here, what with the improvisatory-like passages; and Thibaudet played and demonstrated all. I especially enjoyed watching him doing  flutter pedalling as his bright red bespoke shoes gleamed. I was utterly fascinated by the way Thibaudet played a very long thrill with crescendo and then diminuendo! He also showed how to play rapid passages with elegance. Other tips include how to play longer phrases with pedal, how to change pedal sensitively with the harmony, the need to be dramatic or operatic (eg at energicamente), how to go from pesante e rit to dolce amoroso and dolcissimo and how to “shine” in playing.

Observing a masterclass conducted by Jean-Yves Thibaudet is like being at his private music studio. Watching him play live is an experience that comes rarely. I hope it is not another eight years before he visits Singapore again!

Documentary : Alone in the Wilderness

This documentary is about Richard Proenneke (at age 51) realising his dream of living alone in a pristine land unchanged by man. (“This was something I had to do; not just dream about it…I don’t want to miss anything.”)

The DVD shows how Proenneke spent his first year (from late Spring 1968 to end April 1969) building and perfecting a log cabin, and being blissfully content with his own thoughts and company.

When he left civilisation behind, he carved out a remote life in the Twin Lakes where “the hills seem to come alive” (cue: The Sound of Music) and he didn’t feel so alone anymore. (Incidentally, the background music throughout this programme is called “Love and Peace” played by a Celtic harp and a bamboo flute.)

Looking out to the miles and miles of sea, Proenneke felt he “had made the best possible choice”. The view is majestic, with unending stretches of mountains and rapids forming a picturesque and idyllic scene. The programme chronicles in detail how Proenneke chose the site, cut the trees and built the log cabin – from the hinges to the chimney and fireplace, the kitchen and the garden where he grew vegetables like potatoes, lettuce and onions. He was shown hunting and catching fish a couple of times and how he encountered carcasses left behind by wolves. I had to keep my eyes shut many a time because the way he cut up the animals was just too gross for me!

He worked on a new project every spring and carefully documented his life alone in the wilderness for over 30 years! He was 82 when he decided to leave as it had become too much of a chore. His cabin  remains a historic site.

Concert : Piano

Today’s performance at the Asian Civilization Museum (Shaw Foundation foyer) is a collaboration with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore (YSTCM).

The ten performers today are good, especially the Year 1 students and the YAP (Young Artist Programme)  students (compared to many of the Year 1 & YAP students of yore).

The programme is well-thought out and selection of pieces played is wonderful.

The performance started with a Year 1 student playing Bach’s (German, 1685-1750) Prelude & Fugue in G Major. I used to play this piece but never this well! Her nifty finger-work was impressive. The melody in the Prelude sang beautifully and the counterpoint in the Fugue was very well executed.

This was followed by another Year 1 student with Mozart’s (Austrian, 1719-1787) Sonata in B-flat Major, K.333. It was a gentle and clean playing; the notes were crystal-clear and she made appropriate use of the pedal at suitable places.

Grieg’s (Norwegian, 1833-1897) Praeludium from the Holberg Suite, opus 40 was played by a first-year YAP student. I’ve not heard this piece before and I was impressed by his fingerwork, especially in the left hand. The dynamics went from one extreme to the other (pp – ff) between the two hands effectively, and the melody was clearly heard even when there was crossing-over of hands.

This was followed by three sonatas played by two other YAP students: Domenico Scarlatt’s (Italian, 1810-1856) Sonata in G minor, K. 426 & Sonata In G Major, K. 427 and Haydn’s (German, 1732-1809) Sonata in F Major, Hob. XVI:23 (I. Allegro moderato). The playing was inspiring; the left-hand thrills/ornaments and right-hand running notes were impressive, save for a minor slip in the coda.

The Mozart Sonata in A Minor, K.310 (I. Allegro maestoso) is one of my favourite Mozart sonatas, and I’ve heard many great pianists play this, thus I was a tad disappointed as this Year 1 student’s playing was just about comparable to mine (when I practised it properly). I found her chords were not full and majestic enough, though the gentler sections were nice. She also slipped twice during the Recapitulation section.

Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Hob. XVI:32 (I. Allegro moderato) was slightly disappointing was I expected a Year 1 student to play better than a YAP student, but it was not so.

Then came a surprising good playing of Ravel’s (French, 1875-1937) Miroirs (I. Noctuelles & III. Un barque sur l’ocean)! This is such a difficult piece that I don’t even dare to attempt to play it, but this Year 4 student nailed it so well! She had such a natural flair for playing Ravel! The complicated configuration of notes and the impressionistic demands just oozed with ease from her fingers. I can’t wait to listen to her play this piece again at next Monday’s Piano Masterclass.

Things just got better with another Year 4 student playing Rachmaninov’s (Russian, 1873-1943) Sonata No 1 in D Minor, opus 28 (I. Allegro moderato). It was simply mind-blowing! I marvelled at how he overcame the copious amount of notes and still could make his right hand melody sing and soar above the big ff chords in the left hand. It went from fiery to sweet to contemplative, all excellently executed. I think this student would be in the Master Programme next year, just like the next performer.

As in most concerts, the best is kept for the last. Clarence Lee is a second year Master of Music student, majoring in Piano Performance. I had been impressed by his playing since he began his studies at the Conservatory at age 15. Not surprisingly, he obtained a First Class Honours (Bachelor of Music, 2013) and was asked to perform at his convocation ceremony.

Today, he played Liszt’s (Hungarian, 1811-1886) Transcendental Etude No 8, “Wilde Jagd” (Wild Hunt) (I. Allegro moderato). The piano literally came alive and wild! He was also apparently deeply immersed in the music and enjoying himself, as his facial expression and smiles showed. This is one true artist; almost incomparable in Singapore. After all, out of so many good pianists, he was the pianist chosen to be the stand-in for internationally acclaimed pianist Lang Lang for the rehearsals of the recent SING50 concert! I look forward to his graduation recital at YSTCM next month!