Piano Extravaganza 2019

I witnessed a dazzling display of pianism and an absolutely stunning performance by four of the most brilliant and outstanding Singaporean pianists at the Piano Extravaganza last night!

At the 12th edition of the Young Virtuoso Series, Dr Azariah Tan, Clarence Lee, Song Ziliang and Gabriel Hoe played solo pieces, duets, works for two pianos and a world premiere for eight hands.

Except for Ziliang, who came to my attention when he was featured in the local TV documentary “Find Me a Singaporean” more than a decade ago, I’ve watched the growth and maturity of Azariah, Clarence and Gabriel since their undergraduate days at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

Bach-Busoni’s Chaconne in D minor is a difficult and beautiful solo piece brilliantly executed by Gabriel; Liszt’s Apres une lecture du Dante from Annees du Pelerinage, Book 2: Italie is a masterwork in which Clarence got to showcase his virtuosity; Beethoven’s Sonata No 30 in E major, Op 109 is both intimate and lyrical yet also bright and radiant, wonderfully interpreted by Azariah; Lu Wencheng/ Chen Peixun’s Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake and Ren Guang/ Wang Jianhong’s Colourful Clouds Chasing the Moon are mesmerizing, and Strauss/Grunfeld’s Soiree de Vienne is delightful, all impressively delivered by Ziliang.

Azariah and Ziliang played Brahms’ Hungarian Dances Nos 1 & 4 as a duet and Milhaud’s Scaramouche on two pianos. The third movement, Brazileira, is so charming that it not only grabs my attention but their rendition lingers in my mind for a long time.

Gabriel and Clarence paired up to play Rachmaninoff’s Suite No 2 for 2 Pianos, Op 17. This has lush lyrical melodies as well as florid and complex passagework. The chordal and energetic Alla Marcia, and the swirling and hypnotic Valse create a breathless quality; the Andantino movement has a romantic lush melody that rises to an ecstatic climax; and the driving rhythm of the Tarantelle and its powerful climaxes are contrasted with interludes of delicate passagework that build to an effective and virtuosic coda.

The finale is Tsao Chieh/ Bertram Wee’s The Republic. This work comes from the late Singaporean composer Tsao’s five-movement Singapore Suite (1985), and is specially transcribed for 8 hands by Wee for this concert. The symphonic suite recounts different periods of Singapore’s history, and contains many familiar local tunes like Rasa Sayang and Little White Boat (小白船).

The applause was long and hard enough to bring the pianists back for an encore, during which they played another ‘movement’ from same suite. This time, favourites like Bunga Sayang, Chan Mali Chan and Home are heard.

It was indeed a memorable night and I’m thankful to the organisers, MW Events Management for the complimentary ticket.

The Life of a Banana

The Life of a Banana by PP Wong is about a Chinese girl, Xing Li, born and raised in London. Some people call a Chinese person a banana – “yellow on the outside and white on the inside” – a description for a Chinese with a Western upbringing who has little knowledge of anything except the food.

When Xing Li’s mother dies, she and her brother move in with their grandma, aunt and uncle. She goes to a new school where she is bullied and her only solace is her best friend, Jay, a Jamaican-Chinese boy with a passion for music.

The many themes in the story that also include cultural differences, racism, class divide, dysfunctional families, mental illness and euthanasia means it is a thought-provoking book.

Written from the POV of a 13-year-old makes the novel real and sad, as well as funny and endearing. (For example, Xing Li’s mispronunciation of musical greats and terms like “metal-four”.)

There is a Singapore connection in the story. I’m sure Singaporeans and all who understand the unique Singlish would find the book doubly enjoyable! The twist at the end is unexpectedly touching too!

Songs of Willow Frost

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford is another random find which delights.

As often is the case, I read the Authors Note before I started reading the novel. In this case, it makes the story more credible and far more enjoyable.

Set in Depression era Seattle, this is the story of a young boy, William Eng, who has spent about five years living in an orphanage and longs to find his mother, Willow Frost aka Liu Song Eng. Willow is a singer, a dancer and a movie star. And in flashback, the novel tells the story of Willow growing up in Seattle, dealing with poverty, racism and a violent home life during a time of prejudice and superstition.

These two characters are full of charm and charisma; their lives are tragic as the world stomped on each of them time and time again. But they wouldn’t give up and wouldn’t give in, and wouldn’t let the villians win.

Pure beauty can come from the most horrible experiences, although “the uncomfortable truth is that no one is all bad or all good. Life would be much easier if that were the case. Instead, everyone was a confusing mixture of love and hate, joy and sorrow, loving and forgetting, misguided truth and painful deception”, as William realises. And what resonates most with me is what his friend Sunny from the orphanage commented: “We don’t get to choose our parents. If we did, some of us might choose never to be born at all.”

Rocketman

I was excited to find out from the newspapers this morning that the biopic about Elton John finally opens in cinemas today. This is a musical that used Elton John’s music to show his tribulations through the eyes of a man during the troubled years of his life. I’m not a fan but I like some of his songs, like Your Song (which launched him to global stardom), Crocodile Rock, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Candle In The Wind, all of which (except the last one where only a few phrases of the opening were played on the piano) are featured prominently in the movie. (I counted 22 of his hits in the End Credits.)

I like the way the screenplay is written, I like the fact that the story has authenticity (surely, because Elton John is an executive producer), I like that the music is glorious (what with the vocals, orchestras, stunts, dancers and choreography), I like that the production, art and set decorations and costume designs, the visual and special effects are absolutely splendid. And more.

On a more serious note, the movie depicts the reality of a musician’s life and explores the serious topics of drug addiction, sexuality confusion, suicide and family issues.

A child prodigy, John could pick out anything that he had heard just once, for example a Waltz by Emile Waldteufel or Mozart’s Turkish March, the Third Movement of his Piano Sonata No 11; and he was soon offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). I am awed by the close up views of the interior of the RAM.

There are many scenes showing John playing the piano and performing, including (as a child) playing a solo with an orchestra. The music is always personal, honest, open and lovely.

However, it’s a lonely life. It is very sad that John becomes so broken hearted that he tried to kill himself when he became sick of running away from himself (which stemed from his unhappy childhood), betrayal by his manipulative manager, and the truth of the situation between his parents that has become absurd.

The story comes across as real; yet there is a sense of flawed humanity. The viewer needs to have an open mind to embrace John’s ‘madness’ and the highs and lows of his life. This movie is like a painting, an absolute treat that captured the full range of emotions from trials to joys.

The Expat

The Expat by Patricia Snel is an unexpected gem. I stumbled upon it while browsing the shelves of books in the Singapore Collection at my neighborhood community library yesterday.

This is an interesting novel about human trafficking and the sex industry in Asia, in particular Singapore. Though I’ve read about such exploitations in the national newspapers, I’ve never come across any author who wrote a novel based on these.

That Snel has done research before writing the novel goes without saying. (She even included the Bibliographies at the end of the book.) That she has managed to put the ugliness of the facts into an exciting thriller is no mean feat!

The Expat is a gripping story of greed, love, infidelity and crime in Singapore. The human trafficking trade is disgusting, full of exploits and abuses. It exists, though Singapore is not a country for illegals; and rules are rules.