Piano Masterclass with Clarence Lee

clarencelee

I was thrilled when a friend informed me of an impending piano masterclass with Clarence Lee, whom I’ve always thought of as Singapore’s answer to Lang Lang. (He was the stand in for the international superstar pianist throughout the rehearsals for the Sing50 concert to celebrate Singapore’s 50th National Day in 2015. It must have been one of the many memorable moments for him as a pianist; one other being the commencement in 2012 where he graduated with First Class Honours and was awarded the coveted Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal. He was also the class valedictorian and was asked to perform with his academic dress on. But I digress.)

The Masterclass (held yesterday afternoon) was organised by MW Fine Arts Academy, and the husband-and-wife (Vincent Chong and Khong Shok Meng) team was very efficient in answering my queries about my attendance as an observer. Shok Meng also printed for everyone an almost-complete set of scores for the day’s repertoire. (I guess, due to some copyright laws and her teaching commitment, she couldn’t be expected to print the complete set. And I’ve never attended any masterclass where any score was provided; I always had to bring my own and sometimes had to do without.) Again, I digress.

The day’s repertoire include Liebestraum No 3 in A flat by Liszt, Selling Sundry Goods by Peixun Chen, Cat and the Mouse by Aaron Copland, Ballade No 4 by Chopin, The Harmonious Blacksmith by Handel and Jardins sous la pluie by Debussy. Some of the points highlighted were:

  • There is so much adrenaline before a performance, there is a need to calm down and focus, be comfortable and relaxed before starting to play;
  • Practise slowly first (remember that scores are an added security, not an added distraction); ;
  • Practise without the pedal first (Finger pedaling is more important than the foot);
  • Think of the piano as an orchestra to know the best way to make the different levels and textures;
  • Think like a computer software (hence have to know a lot of things, like the range of the instrument and the room);
  • Know the structure (think of the whole piece like chapters with a climax, where “the floodgates open” at “a point of no return”);
  • Have to convince the audience to believe in what you want to say, so need to turn up the energy and be less humble; (Here, Lee demonstrates and talks about how Lang Lang is a very good pianist and is so successful because he always gives 300% in his performances, notwithstanding the exaggerated articulations. The performer has to exaggerate because the audience always feels less. The piano is like a filter for emotions, so what comes out is only 75% – just listen to any recording of Lang Lang. I may add that anyone who disagrees had better play the piano better than Lang Lang!)
  • Have to be very sensitive from the first note to the last note of the piece; any change (even subtle ones) in harmony or register should be reflected through the sound;
  • There’s no one method that works with everyone; each must adapt to suit his style and needs;
  • Scales and arpeggios are very important, like vocabulary in a language; (I totally agree! I used to warm-up by playing scales and arpeggios for 45 minutes before playing my pieces and got all sorts of weird looks and comments from friends; was I glad to hear that Lee used to warm up by playing scales and arpeggios for an hour!)
  • The difference between a good pianist and a very good pianist is that some don’t do enough or are not sensitive enough;
  • The secret is what you hear in your head;
  • A pianist is a magician who creates the illusion that the sound is growing;
  • The piano is very easy to learn but very difficult to master; (This I can’t agree more!)
  • The ear is a very personal space to listen to the various levels of dynamics;
  • A good pianist should do everything with sound; a performer tries to make the audience feel;
  • Focus on the foundation, not the architecture;
  • Make sure everything is well pronounced;
  • Set realistic goals (do it painfully slow at first; trying to reach the top too quickly would result in disappointment and depression);
  • Tempo choice : think like a singer! (“If you can’t sing it, then don’t play so fast.”)

I gained a lot more insight than the twenty points listed above. What I like best is that “When you are the pianist, do the way you like it. Some may like it, some may not. But the pianist can go home feeling good. Don’t try to please people. Be convincing. Be what you like; put your personality into the music.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the masterclass, including all the “tricks” and “secrets” shared. In fact, Lee mentioned that he may one day write a book along the lines of ‘100 Tricks on How to be a Good Pianist’. I can’t wait!

The Tree

treemovie

The last time I borrowed this in DVD, the audio was in French. I did not like it very much. Recently, I saw a Blu-Ray disc of this movie in English so I decided to borrow it to see if I would enjoy it better or if I would just switch it off sometime during the movie. In the end, I sat glued throughout the 100 or so minutes. I concluded that I must understand the spoken language to be able to fully understand and enjoy the movie.

The story, adapted from Australian author Judy Pascoe’s book Our Father Who Art in the Tree and co-written by director Julie Bertucelli,: the O’Neills lived happily in their house in the Australian countryside. Peter (Aden Young) died suddenly of a heart attack when he crashed his car into a tree trunk, leaving his grief-striken wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsborough) alone with their four children, Tim (Christian Byers) the oldest, Lou (Tom Russell) the middle son, 8-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies) and Charlie (Gabriel Gotting) the youngest boy (who did not speak at all until one crucial moment in the story when he suddenly speaks for the first time: “I don’t want to die!”).

Simone thinks that her late father whispers to her through the leaves of the giant fig tree (where he crashed into) near their house. She climbs up there very frequently to have conversations with him. The tree starts to infiltrate the house and must be felled because it is a hazard, but Simone won’t allow it. The bond between mother and daughter is threatened when Dawn starts a relationship with George (Marton Csokas), the plumber called in to remove the tree’s troublesome roots which caused the toilet and sink to be clogged with disgusting creatures and awful stuff…

The giant fig tree is the heart of this family and of the movie. It is a surprisingly moving story about coping with sudden death and the need to carry on with life. The cinematography is stunning – beautiful foliage and the surrounding landscapes. The music add to the atmosphere in every scene; for example, Dean Martin’s Sway played during a family holiday at the beach and before Christmas, and J.S.Bach’s Die Kriegknechte Aber, Da Sie Jesum! (a sacred masterpiece, the recitative and chorus from the oratorio St John’s Passion).

The movie succeeded in engaging and delivering an involving experience because of its evocation of the pain of bereavement which resonates with truth.

All the Flowers in Shanghai

flowersinshanghai

The author, Duncan Jepson, is a lawyer who lives in Hong Kong. All the Flowers in Shanghai is his first novel. He wrote this book largely because of his mother, a Singaporean Chinese who immigrated with her parents to the UK in the mid-1950s, became a doctor, engaging and enjoying English culture while retaining what she could of her Chinese heritage as she remembered it. She had made up her mind not to return to Singapore only a few years after arriving in the UK and probably missed home. She felt that Chinese women needed to question the lives they were asked to lead and should be able to choose how and with whom they would spend their futures.

Duncan Jepson wanted to explore Chinese attitudes towards motherhood, children and family. He is an Eurasian, brought up in the UK, but spent years studying, dating, traveling and working in Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

Besides being a Singaporean and my Chinese background, I was also curious how convincingly he could tell a story on behalf of a woman with a first-person perspective. I was to discover that it didn’t really grab my attention as much as I expected.

The story is set in the 1930s Shanghai, spanning several decades into the 1960s. The protagonist is a naive young girl Xiao Feng, thrust into the world of the wealthy and powerful Sang family through a marriage arranged by her parents, a world she views as foreign and cruel. The story is fine, but throughout the book, I felt something was lacking or missing – perhaps the way certain things are just not told convincingly enough for a male writer from a female’s first-person perspective.

I doubt I’d read another book by Jepson, but I may read some of the others he recommends at the end of the book: Daughter of the River by Hong Ying, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li, and Beijing Doll by Chun Sue.

My Pride and Joy

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I should be excited, shouldn’t I?

I should be happy, shouldn’t I?

I am both, but not as much

As being grateful.

A pre-loved desk top computer

Inherited from my son

Which he took time to set up

Even before his.

More than a gift of computer

Are the aid, support and faith

For an anteluvian

With I.T. phobia.

The cornerstone of my essence,

The strength in my existence,

The pride and joy of my life –

My loving son.

 

The Evil Within

This 2016 memoir is written by Darren Galsworthy, the father of Rebecca (Becky) Watts, a 16-year-old murdered by her stepbrother. I was keen to read this as I don’t recall it being reported in the newspapers here when it happened. (I would have thought that such a shocking and horrendous piece of news would be reported all around the globe.)

On the night of 19 Feb 2015, Becky went missing from her bed. Her body was found two weeks later, brutally dismembered, and her stepbrother, Nathan (who she had grown up with, and whose name was the fist word she spoke), was arrested for the murder along with his girlfriend Shauna.

As Darren discovered the horrific details of what happened to his darling girl, his world fell apart. He uncovered what Becky’s relationship with Nathan, a child he had raised as his own son, was really like as he battled to see his stepson sentenced to life behind bars for the evil murder.

Writing this story must have been an emotional and difficult process. Hopefully, it had also been therapeutic for Darren.

Both heartfelt and haunting, this is a story of an unspeakable tragedy, an evil betrayal and the unforgettable love of a father for his daughter.

In the first part of the book, Darren gives the background and relationships. Darren had two children with his girlfriend Tanya Watts whom he never married. (Hence Becky’s surname is Watts.) He had met Anjie years before. (Nathan is her son from her marriage during the years Darren was with Tanya.) Darren gets custody of his two children, and they all live together as a family of five. (Darren and Anjie only married on 31 August 2013.)

From early on, there is sibling rivalry and jealousy between Becky and Nathan. When Becky went missing, Nathan acted like his normal self, and even helped Darren put up Facebook posts to enlist help in the search for her. Hence all Darrren felt was shock, revulsion and contempt when Nathan was arrested for Becky’s murder. Darren was unhinged and dumbfounded, devastated and inconsolabe, furious and hurt, completely broken and incredibly bitter.

How could anyone possibly take a young girl’s life and simply cut her up into pieces and simply discard them all over the place? It was so brutal and horrific; it was inhuman. What’s worse is that the person responsible for this brutality was someone Darren had spent years taking care of and helped financially.

At Becky’s funeral, Darren had never felt more empty. His heart was filled with sorrow and despair. He drank himself into a stupor – the only way to numb the pain and blot out the bitter reality. He and Anjie held to each other, trying to make some sense out of their obliterated lives. He tried to focus at work, but felt out of control.

The trial revealed that, besides fourteen cuts and bruises to her face, Becky had been stabbed 15 times in the abdomen after she died (by suffocation/strangulation), dismembered with a circular saw in eight diffent locations, and her remains carefully packaged into plastic bags, a rucksack and suitcases for disposal.

What Nathan and Shauna did was sickening. Nathan’s confession engulfed Darren and Anjie in anger and grief. Nathan was a true monster. He and Shauna are very cold people. They deserve their sentences (Nathan for life and seventeen years for Shauna) but Darren is still left with overpowering sorrow and heartache, anguish and despair.

Even Anjie wrote, in the Afterword: How do you begin to explain that once upon a time yout life was filled with love and laughter, and now there is just emptiness?

The main reason Darren and Anjie are so strong together is because they simply have had to be. They only really have each other now, because nobody else would ever understand the confusion and betrayal they have suffered. They share some incredible memories. They are truly soulmates.They are both amazingly strong, especially Darren.

A Perfect World

I was drawn to this 1993 movie because of Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood. To my delight, I found an unexpected gem in the child actor T.J.Lowther.

The movie is set in Texas in the early 1960s. It is a multilayered manhunt saga. An 8-year-old boy Phillip Perry (Lowther) is kidnapped by escaped convicts Butch Haynes (Costner) and Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) on Halloween night. The men do not like each other, and eventually Butch kills Terry. Butch takes Phillip to the Texas highway to flee from the pursuing police. They form an unlikely bond. Phillip’s mum is a devout Jehovah Witness and he is not allowed things like celebrating Halloween and Christmas, or go to parties, celebrate birthdays, visit the carnival, eat cotton candy or ride a roller coaster. Butch gives him opportunities to do many of these things and tells him what is wrong and what is right, and ass him to be independent and make his own choices. It seems llike Butch is giving Phillip the kind of fatherly presence which he lacks (and which Butch himself also never had).

Meanwhile, Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood) is in pursuit of them with criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) and FBI sharpshooter Bobby Lee (Bradley Whitford).

The highway is endless, and Butch and Phillip stop at a cornfield to sleep. They encounter Mack (Wayne Dehart) who offers them a bed for the night. In the morning, Butch beats Mack and plans to kill him because he cannot tolerate the way Mack abuses his 6-year-old son Cleveland (Kevin Woods). Instead, Phillip got hold of the gun and shoots Butch in the stomach instead; then he runs away.

Butch catches up with Phillip, but they are soon surrounded by the police… The stunning climax is one of the most touching and emotionally draining in a movie of this genre.

This is a highly watchable movie. Costner’s fine performance adds greater interest to the character he plays. Eastwood’s performance is not as outstanding, but his work as a director here is fine. There is constant moving in the storyline, as well as exhilarating imaginative roller coaster rides, car chases and even suspenseful action.

Besides the great cinematography, I am most impressed by how different genres of music come together in this movie without any being out of place: pop, rock, folk, ballad, country and even authentic Cajun music. Some of these are: Blue Blue Day and Sea of Heartbreak (by Don Gibson), Please Help Me, I’m Falling (by Hank Locklin), Catch a Falling Star (by Perry Como), Guess Things Happen That Way (by Johnny Cash), Funny How Time Slips Away (by Willie Nelson) and of course Eastwood’s orginial composition Big Fran’s Baby.

This is a movie that surprises because it is not just about a prison break, or kidnapping, or car chases, or murders, or robberies of even a confrontation between a fugitive and a lawman. It goes much deeper. It is about the true nature of violence and about how the child is father to the man. It is also a tender story about the shifting relationship between a young boy and a grown man. It is about regrets and discrimination. It is palpable and real, sometimes even frustrating and scary.

A Family Man

I had wanted to watch this 2016 movie when it was screened here but somehow I didn’t (probably because I confused it with another movie of similar title also starring Butler). So when I saw this on the library shelf, I picked it up eagerly. I enjoyed the nearly two hours of drama, though I thought Gerard Butler (also an executive producer for this movie) and Alison Brie were quite different from my impression of them.

The story is about a hard-driven headhunter Dane Jensen (Butler) who works at a cut-throat job placement firm. His boss Ed (William Dafoe) pits him against Lynn Vogel (Brie) to take over the position of general manager when he retires.  It is during this period that Dane finds out that his 10-year-old son Ryan (the adorable Maxwell Jenkin) has leukemia. Now his professional dream clashes with spending time with his family, including his wife Elise (the lovely Gretchen Mol who brings warmth and dimension to even rote lines).

An unexpected sub-plot is how the movie celebrates older people. An experienced 59-year-old engineer (Alfred Molina) remained unemployed only because of his age…

Filmed in Chicago and Toronto, the photography (including aerial photography) is excellent (some of the scenes, like architectural landmarks, could serve as a travelogue), and the visual effects too.

Brain Gym for Mental Fitness

I first heard of Brain Gym about four years ago. I was very curious and tried to find courses to attend. Alas, the one I was recommended cost a bomb, so I continued looking. I was very happy when one of the courses for Seniors at the Temasek Polytechnic (Gerontology Department) included a module on Brain Gym. However, I was quite disappointed because it introduced Sudoku, Origami, Riddles, Computer Games and other puzzles meant to exercise our brain. Though I enjoyed the course very much, it was not what I had been told what Brain Gym is about.

Recently, I received an email from the National Silver Academy (NSA) about a course called Brain Gym for Mental Fitness. The email also stated that SkillsFuture Credit could be used; it was also mentioned that SACE (Singapore Association for Continuing Education) members may use their Membership Subsidy to pay for the fees. I immediately decided to sign up with a friend.

The two sessions (totalling 7 hours) were held last Wed and this morning. The objective is to improve mental agility, physical coordination and general well-being through brain gym exercises. The coverage (5 areas) look good on paper, but the facilitator spent the entire two sessions on only getting into PACE (Positive – do Hook Ups, Active – do Cross Crawls, Clear – do Brain Buttons, Energetic – sip water) and doing other exercises. Although the exercises were covered, she did not properly explain the other 4 areas, namely Activities for Communication (seeing, listening, writing), Activities for Organising and Centering, Activities for Comprehension and Empowering Language. For instance, she did not explain how Belly Breathing, Neck Rolls, The Energizer, The Rocker, The Double Doodle, Lazy 8s, The Elephant, Earth Buttons, Space Buttons, Balance Buttons, The Energy Yawn, The Owl, The Footflex, The Grounder, Arm Activation, The Calf Pump, The Gravity Glider etc aid skills such as organising and comprehension. I felt it was not well organised as she jumped from one to the other at random. The delivery was not exactly systematic. I felt I was short-changed.

The facilitator was also horrendously late for the first session, and wasted a lot of time giving and repeating her lame excuses. She promised to be punctual for today’s session and she was, but still wasted time by not bothering to start until almost a quarter of an hour had passed. A lot of time is also wasted during the session.

It was a good thing I did not sign up for the course when it cost more than ten times what I paid with the SkillsFuture Credit. The 7-hour course could have been completed in a 3-hour session, and be better planned. I also did not sign up for a course to be told to follow a YouTube clip.

A Most Wanted Man

The main reason I picked this 2014 movie was because of Philip Seymour Hoffman. His role here as German Intelligence agent Gunther Bachmann was his last. (He died of acute mixed drug intoxication on 2 Feb 2014.) That the movie is based on a thriller by John le Carre (who is also one of the executive producers) is a minor reason. I would never pick up a John le Carre book again after my experience a couple of decades ago.  I thought perhaps watching it adapted for the big screen would not be so bad.

Here, Agent Bachmann must race against time to solve a mystery: is the half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim who’s surfaced in Hamburg a victim seeking refuge or a terrorist seeking revenge? It is a tale of intrigue, rivlary and politics; and I’m not real keen on anything related to politics. So the movie was mostly quite boring and incomprehensible to me. I didn’t feel the thrill, tension and suspense that was supposedly present, though it could be that I’m simply not sophisticated enough to understand its subtle complexity.

The only thing that saved this movie was Hoffman. I’ve always been impressed by his performances. And his final performance is the only reason to watch this movie. That he is seen playing a J. S. Bach piece on his piano at home is a bonus.

I wish I could get hold of a copy of The Master (2012), starring Hoffman and Amy Adams. This was not shown in cinemas here, I guess because it is about a charismatic leader (played by Hoffman) of  a Scientology-type movement; neither is it available at the libraries (I checked).

Before and After

I had missed this 1996 movie when it was playing in the theatres because, before retirement, I couldn’t just walk in to cinemas (or anywhere else, even the library) when I felt the urge. I practically had no life, no time for myself. So when I saw this in Blu Ray disc at the library@esplanade, I was really excited. What’s more, besides Meryl Streep, there is Liam Neeson too. I was very sure I would not be disappointed. And I was not.

Based on the book (of the same title) by Rosellen Brown, the story is about how two parents deal with the effects when their teenage son Jacob (Edward Furlong) is accused of murdering his girlfriend. A small, close-knit community is rocked by this shock. Suddenly, Dr Carolyn Ryan (Streep) is forced to close her clinic, and she and her artist/sculptor husband Ben (Neeson) are faced with a gut-wrenching dilemma: whether to risk everything on their son’s innocence or protect him from his possible guilt. The family gets entangled in a web of truth, trust and lies. A family argument ensues, and they pay a hefty price.

The actors (including the lawyer Panis Demeris played by Alfred Molina and the daughter, Judith Ryan, played by Julia Weldon) are definitely more brilliant than the plot. The wintry locations and vivid cinematography also scored points. Besides Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata played in the background at one point, the rest of the music is scored by Howard Shore, who has composed music for films like The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Mrs Doubtfire (1993), Seven (1995), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001), Gangs of New York (2002), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KIng (2003), The Aviator (2004) and more.