Piano Masterclass by Danile de Borah (29 Jan 2016)

The first Visiting Artist to conduct a piano masterclass this semester at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (at the National University of Singapore) is Daniel de Borah, a foremost musician born in 1891 in Australia. His playing is exemplary and he has a very special kind of musicianship.

Despite his relatively young age, he impressed me with his comments and interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata in F Major, Op 10 No 2 (First Movement: Allegro).He covered a lot of ground in precisely 40 minutes! His critique of the Year 3 student’s performance was very positive and encouraging. He commented that the performance was very thoughtfully prepared, with wonderful articulation and beautiful staccatos but thought the student could exercise a little more freedom so as not to take away the joy in the music, encouraging him to grasp the humour and find the surprises and be free of the constraints of barlines or repetition of sequence.

Danile de Borah did not just talk but also demonstrated on a second Steinway grand how to use a touch less pedal and how to make the crescendo at the rising passages implicit and care a little more for dynamics. Things must be allowed to happen naturally; it is not enough to know theoretically the musical intentions. There should be a building of tension and existence, stubborness perhaps, not just playing metronomically. When an idea stretches for two whole pages (eg in the Development section), there needs to be more conviction. Therefore, the performer must have a bigger picture and not micro-manage the dynamics. Again, Borah demonstrated how to do a diminuendo from sforzando to pianissimo, just like how he demonstrated not to lose tension over the left-hand semiquavers or let the notes be distorted by the pedal. He emphasised that the pedal should be used only for valuable change of colour, for example in expressive and singing lines. In other words, the pianist should be more of a conductor to the music. Borah also showed how ornaments need to fit in the note at a certain time yet the phrase needs to be melodic, and how all these must be projected to the back of the hall. In general, the pianist needs a bit of freedom of time to express himself, to imbue a bit of texture, allowing the music to live its life a little more rather than living the ingredients on the page.

The second piece is Alexander Scriabin’s Five Preludes Op 16 played by another Year 3 student. I have never played any Scriabin and in general I do not enjoy his music, so the 60 minutes taken up here was a tad too long and thus tedious for me. Borah himself remarked at the start that he was a bit worried how the student would be able to bring out the layered textures and a sense of sophistication in such a poetic work. Much of Borah’s comments were similar to the Beethoven sonata, centering on texture, pedalling, the need to be relaxed and free. What I enjoyed was Borah’s beautiful conception and how he compared these Preludes to Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu Op 66, with demonstrations on the piano. Perhaps this segment is so lengthy because the student, a non-Asian, was more vocal and forthcoming in interacting with Borah and they spent a lot of time teaching and leqrning about technical details. The student exclaimed a “Wow!” at Borah’s playing, and so did I.

It is indeed unfortunate that the third student had only 20 minutes for her Ravel’s Sonatine (1905) III. Anime. The two points Borah made were again about pedalling and texture. He felt the effect could have been magical if only she had more courage to play the semiquavers with less density (the piece consists of mostly semiquavers from start to finish) as she was already very articulated and accomplished in her playing.

I look forward to the next few piano masterclasses in the weeks ahead.

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Movie : The Dressmaker

dressmaker

 

The opening music sequence with guitar and drum solos, later joined by the violin, foretells an interesting two hours ahead.

Based on Rosalie Ham’s bestseller of the same name, the story is about a dressmaker who returns to her hometown after twenty-five years to find out the reason for her exile. There is a sprawling web of underlying themes – bullying, scandal, prejudices, blackmail, hypocrisy, treachery, cross-dressing, fetishes, envy, romance, comedy, self-identity and self-esteem. It is very satisfying to watch the plot unfold as the layers are peeled off and the truth underneath slowly revealed. One little glitch for me is that Kate Winslet (as Tilly Dunnage) looks nearer 45 than 35 (the age her character is supposed to be), so I find it quite ludicrous when Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) tells her, “I know you came home for one of two things : either revenge or me,” as he looks at least 15 years younger (which would mean Teddy wasn’t even born when Tilly was sent away at age 10).

Tilly Dunnage’s mother Molly asks her, ” Why do you come to this hole?” and Tilly says, “I come so that you can remember I am your daughter,” and goes on to ask, “Did I commit a murder? Am I a murderer? Is that why I am cursed?” It takes almost the rest of the movie for the answer to be revealed.

Molly is played by Judy Davis to great effect and Tilly’s dresses are simply electrifying. Winslet’s performance is very good but I wonder if perhaps another actress would take home the Oscar for Best Actress.

This is another one of those movies that use music to enhance the plot effectively. The audience is enraptured by the drama on screen when it is devoid of music for an entire scene before a lone bugle is player, and when it is joined by the band, there is a sense of resolution. Having an entire choral ensemble to sing a well-known aria accompanied by a full orchestra adds to the dramatic revealation of one of the best-kept secrets of this outback town of Dungatar in aAustralia. Similarly, when a dowdy character enters the ballroom in a stunning gown that transforms her, everyone is rendered so speechless and shocked that even after a Billie Holiday love song is played at her request for dancing to resume, nobody moved for a while (and when they did resume dancing, all eyes were still on her). The songs of Perry Como and songs from Rodger and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific ( in particular the song  Bali Hai which is played several times throughout the movie), whether accompanied by a full orchestra or featuring solo instruments (like the banjo, violin of piano) depict the tone and mood of the story, be it dramatic, pensive, inspiring or reflective.

Movie : Mr Six

The last time I watched a Feng Xiaogang movie was a couple of years ago. I have always enjoyed his movies, so I went to watch Mr Six with great anticipation. I was not disappointed; I was kept riveted from the start to finish. Feng deservedly won the Golden Horse Award for Best Actor for his wonderful portrayal of Mr Six.

Mr Six is such an indelible character that someone remarks in the film that “I thought people like you existed only in novels”. He is a man of honour and principles who is a fish out of water in today’s materialistic world. This is seen right from the opening scene where he calmly suggests that a pickpocket returns the wallet that he has stolen and is about to throw in the garbage after relieving it of its cash. Most people would have turned a blind eye.

The title Mr Six downplays the high respect and reverence people in the neighbourhood (including the police) have for him; he is always addressed as “liu ye” (Master Six or Grandpa Six) or “liu ge” (Brother Six). However, his relationship with his son is in shreds because of his neglect of his family in the past. Still, he goes all out to rescue his son when the latter is held hostage by a rich, spoilt brat with an influential background because “you (son) are the closest person in this world to me”.

The film is not just a character study or about the clash between generations and value systems (the older generation asks: “If people have no principles, what would the world become?” and the young generation’s response: “A man’s gotta be a man”) but also shows the contrast between how people in different parts of Beijing live – the poorer and mostly old-timers in the villages and the more affluent city dwellers where apartment blocks are stacked like matchboxes, where the subways are extremely congested and where there are highways and tunnels for the increasing car population.

It is revealed only late in the film that Mr Six’s real name is Zhang Xue Jun. I wonder what the significance of that is. And, for that matter, why Mr Six, and not any other number. This is not explained. Or did I miss something? Anyway, it does not distract from the main theme  : observations about contemporary Chinese society.

As one film reviewer pointed out, and I’m sure all who watch the movie would agree: the ending is spectacular. It reinforces the clash between the generations, between value systems, and between the brute force of might and the courage to do what is right.

The music is used to such good effect that it feels at times that it is like watching a thriller because the use of different instruments (eg guitar, cello, piano and drums) gives it a sense of urgency. This is on top of a consummate actor giving a compelling study of his character together with a capable cast. Also, the scene of a frozen lake and its surroundings is one of the many visual treats in the film.

 

Movie : The Good Guy (DVD)

Considering that Los Angeles Times called it “Clever”, I am quite disappointed with this 2009 film. Also, despite playing eighteen songs in the movie, I did not feel that the music enhanced the plot in any way.

The story is about an ambitious New Yorker Beth who wants everything : a good job, great friends and the perfect guy. She is in a three-month relationship with Tommy, a pretty successful Wall Street trader. It turns out that Tommy is quite a Casanova. By the time Beth realises this, she has already met Tommy’s colleague Daniel and falls in love with him instead.

The only redeeming feature about this film is that much of the drama revolves around a Book Club (that Beth is in). Daniel is invited to join the Club because he is “without people skills” (so cannot go clubbing with the guys), is old-fashioned (and likes to read books by Dickens, Tolstoy and Austen), and gets slightly animated only when discussing books and making remarks like “In real life, sometimes things are not what they are like”.

Movie : Spotlight

One of the most critically acclained film of the year, Spotlight is so fascinating to watch that I missed almost all the music besides two Baroque chamber pieces by Handel and Bach about halfway through the movie when the drama takes place at the Catholic Charities Gala where there is a lot of dancing and wonderful music in the background.

Based on actual events, the story is about how The Boston Globe investigated and uncovered the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Dozens of paedophile priests had escaped arrest and were shuffled to another parish where they preyed on more children.

The city of Boston is steeped in the culture of Catholicism where 53% of its population are Catholics; therefore the team needs to be more discreet than usual and be very careful about this case. In finding a way to make the paper more essential to readers and to ensure that the number of subscribers do not dwindle, a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is hired. He sees a pattern in the crimes and asks Robbie, aka Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), head of Spotlight, to follow up.

Spotlight is a four-person investigative team that is always working on the controversial, and once settled on a project, they would spend a year or more investigatinig. The other three journalists are  played by Mark Buffalo (who is nominated for the Oscar’s Best Supporting Actor for his role here, whcih I think he fully deserves), Rachel McAdams (nominated for the Best Supporting Actress award) and John Slattery.

“When you are a poor kid from a poor family and a priest pays attention to you, that’s a big deal”, is usually how the abuse starts, “until you feel trapped because he has groomed you.” This is not just physical abuse but also spiritual abuse. The child could be offered an ice cream, and because it’s a priest, the kid just follows. Or it could be something funny at first, like playing strip poker, and things went on from there; specifically, the kid would be molested by the priest. All these really mess the kids up, and it is very confusing for them, even when they become adults. This is a phenomenal problem and a complicated case as it involves not just a handful, or a dirty dozen, but close to ninety priests (or 6% of the 1500 priests in Boston).

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” so says one character in the movie. The church seems to be aware that “only 50% of its clergy is celibate” but the church is an institution and Faith is eternal, therefore to separate the two is tricky. Something is amiss in the system. There is a lot of pressure for the victims to keep quiet from family, friends and other parishioners; “everybody knows but nobody wants to cuff a priest,” says a uniformed character. “The church controls everything, EVERYTHING.”

It is a nightmare, so “sometimes it’s easy to forget we spend time stumbling in the dark,” but this this kind of story is why investigative journalists do what they do. This investigation, where each character is unique, is carried out as though it is and action movie. This is one reason why it is so engrossing and has also been nomintated for the Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Direcxtor and Best Filim Editing awards.

 

Book : It Started With Paris by Cathy Kelly

Cathy Kelly is another of my favourite authors; I’ve read all her previous fifteen books. Her trademark is warm Irish storytelling about modern life, always with an uplifting message, sense of community and strong female characters at the heart.

As the title suggests, the story starts at the top of the Eiffel Tower, where a young man proposes to his girlfriend. From that moment on, everything changes – not just for the couple but also for their families back in Ireland.

While there is a touch of romance (engagements and weddings), there is a lot of realism in the novel, as Kelly explores the problems of eating disorders, depression, infidelity, families, widowhood, divorce and relationships (between siblings, spouses/ex-spouses, friends, parents-and-children etc).

It Started With Paris is a heartwarming story, full of brilliant characters, beautifully written and full of human emotion. I found myself tearing and giggling at different parts of the novel. When I reached the final page, I wished I could get my hands on her next novel immediately. (The little teaser is enticing, for sure.)

Each chapter starts with a wise saying or quote; from Goethe’s “Love is an ideal thing, marriage is a real thing” in the Prologue to a Kenyan proverb, “The man may be the head of the home, but the wife is the heart” in the last chapter. In between, there is a Finnish proverb (Love is a flower which turns into fruit at marriage), two Chinese proverbs (If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come; Love’s hearts are linked and always beat as one), a Burundi proverb (Where there is love, there is no darkness), quotes from well-known literary artists such as George Sand (There is only one happiness in life: to love and be loved), Aristotle (Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies), Victor Hugo (Life’s greatest happiness is to be convinced that we are loved), William Shakespeare (The course of true love never did run smooth), Virgil (Love conquers all), Robert Frost (There was never any heart truly great and generous, that was not also tender and compassionate), Lao Tzu (To love someone deeply gives you strength. Being loved by someone deeply gives you courage) and a dozen more, including one from the Bible.

Even some of Kelly’s own words are worthy of quoting; for example, “People were rude for such strange reasons: insecurity, anxiety, or an inability to express themselves any other way. It rarely had anything to do with the person they were being rude to.”

I wonder and marvel at how novelists like Kelly come up with all these ideas and inspirations for writing stories on a regular basis. Having attempted to write a short story myself, I know how difficult it is to write about people and situations, whether based on real life or purely imagined, and how a complex topic is born from a simple story arc.

Book : How To Tell A Woman By Her Handbag by Kathryn Eisman

I have loved handbags since I was a teenager. At one stage, I had about thirty handbags so that I could carry a different one every day of the month. These days, however, due to practical and economic reasons, I own fewer handbags than the number of fingers on one hand, and that’s including the raerely-used clutch bag and the only branded bag I’ve ever owned (both birthday presents from friends).

I was immediatedly drawn to this book by its cover. Inside, I find there is an illustration on every page. From the Dedication page, to the Contents page, the acknowledgments, her own profile and each of the thirty-nine different bags she writes about, Kathryn Eisman did a marvellous job of illustration.

The line I like most is in the Introduction : A peek inside a woman’s bag is a peak into her soul.

The women listed here include the Fanny Pack Lady, Diaper Bag Lady, Corporate Briefcase Lady, Bamboo Cane Handle Lady, Over-Stuffed Bag Lady, Gym Bag Lady and Ethnically Chic Bag Lady, most of whom I can identify with.

There is a short write-up by the author on how to identify a woman’s purse-sonailty : her aspirations, sensibility, sensuality, style and sense of humour, even her economic status. She also lists the Pros and Cons of each Bag Lady and gives examples of Hollywood personailities in some of them.

This book was published in 2008, and I’m on the look-out for her earlier book, How to Tell A Man By His Shoes.