A Gift for Singapore

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Beautiful Sunday is a free monthly concert series presented by the Esplanade. It is a family-friendly concert for all ages and people from all backgrounds and those with special needs. Today’s concert, A Gift for Singapore, is performed by the Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra (ACSO).

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The ACSO plays music with an Asian sensibility. A relatively new orchestra founded in 2016, it is mainly made up of young amateur musicians who play home-grown tunes in their concerts. The guests today are vocalist Sugie Phua and world fusion music group Flame of the Forest and other ethnic instrumental soloists.

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The first piece is the best of all of today’s pieces: a specially arranged medley of at least eight songs by Cultural Medallion winner Dr Liang Wern Fook. The music was full of joy, melancholy and expressed a sense of reminiscence. They include Xi Sui Chang Liu (the song that will for ever be remembered as the one the Prime Minister sang at a National Day Rally), Lian Zhi Qi (loosely translated as Break From Love), Pai Pai Zuo (loosely translated as Sitting in Rows), Singapore Pie and one that has been made popular by Heavenly King Jacky Cheung, Mei Tian Ai Ni Duo Yi Xie (loosely translated as Love You More Each Day). The beautiful tone colour and musical timbre were so beautiful that Dr Liang would have been very pleased if he was there.

Another nostalgic Singaporean medley consists of Malay songs like Di Tanjong Katong, performed with not just Flame of the Forest (playing the sitar and tabla) but also instruments like the er hu, zhong ruan, accordion and the harp. A gao hu soloist (Rosie Hong in a resplendent red gown) was featured in the 1999 composition Legend of the Merlion, which describes Singapore in three movements: Seek Blessings, Regency & Nanyang Perfection. Another piece called Li Yuan (“Separation”) featured two Chinese flutes and a Chinese ensemble. What was interesting for me was that the piece opens with a cello solo to the harp accompaniment, but the two very young and adorable Caucasian girls next to me were getting bored and restless so I became distracted.

The finale was where all the performers – the full orchestra, Flame of the Forest and Sugi Phua (whose fame began when he took part in the Project Superstar Singing Competition on TV several years ago) – came together. Called Singapore Fantasia, it consisted of works by notable Singapore composers such as Zubir Said’s Semoga Bahagia, Chen Jiaming’s Moonlight in the City, Dick Lee’s Bunga Sayang and songs by Iskander Ismail and the Sam Willows.

It was a pleasant concert and I look forward to listening to the ACSO again.

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Russian Extravaganza

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The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) performed a free lunchtime concert of music from Russian composers Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Igor Stravinsky.

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It was conducted by Joshua Tan and featured violinist Loh Jun Hong.

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This concert, sponsored by Singapore Press Holdings, was widely publicised, and I expected the response to be overwhelming. As the complimentary tickets would be issued one hour before the concert, I timed to be one of the earliest to arrive. Yet, the queue snaking the entire foyer of the Victoria Concert Hall spilled over onto the road outside when I arrived ten minutes after tickets were issued. (I got ticket no 176.) I wonder how many of those who arrived just before the concert commenced were turned away.

Excerpts from Pictures at an Exhibition  (Mussorgsky)

The short pieces in this (piano) suite are linked by a series of Promenades which need no introduction. I especially liked the alto saxaphone in The Old Castle and the percussion in Tuileries. The orchestral arrangement by Maurice Ravel has turned the piano suite into a  concert-hall showpiece. The pizzicato passages are especially glorious.

Nocturne from String Quartet no 2 (Borodin)

This is one of the best loved tunes, particularly the theme sung by the cello. When the violins came in, I imagined I was floating among the clouds; then I was dancing with the fairies and was unwilling to come down after the finale.

Finale: Allegro Vivacissimo from Violin Concerto in D Major, Op 35 (Tchaikovsky)

This is the moment I’d been waiting for: Loh Jun Hong, whom I’ve not seen in a live performance since he graduated from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM) several years ago. (He has since graduated with a master’s from The Julliard School, performed all over the world and is a part-time lecturer at YSTCM.) He plays on a $300,000 (at least) rare 1726 Mezzadri on generous loan from the Rin Collection for this concert.

In this lively movement, both the harmony and melody are equally predominant, and so are the highly challenging technical passages. I believe I read somewhere that this piece was considered ‘unplayable’ even by some professional violinists; so imagine how impressed I was by Loh’s performance. I was awe-struck the moment he put his bow to violin and played the first note. His technical prowess and mastery of the violin aside, Loh’s passion and commitment to both the music and performance was evident and clear. He was Singapore’s best bet in the finals of the inaugural Singapore International Violin Competition in 2015, but, shockingly (as he has finished top in international competitions before) his journey ended after the semi-finals.

Flight of the Bumble-Bee (Rimsky-Korsakov)

This is one of the most famous classical pieces ever written. I used to play this on the piano. And I still love this piece, but by this time at the concert, I was experiencing serious gastric pains (as I had only had a small bun since I woke up at 5.30am, and it was now almost 1.30pm), so I did not enjoy it as much as I would have.

Suite No 2 for Small Orchestra (Stravinsky)

Stravinsky originally wrote this as four piano pieces for his children to duet at the piano but later arranged it for an small orchestra. By this time, even Joshua Tan was perspiring profusely (as could be seen from the wet shirt clinging to his back as he conducted). The character of the piece is amusingly off-kilter and quirky. The raucous and lively rhythms bring it to a captivating conclusion. Tan’s enthusiasm and energy came through in spades but the musicians played with a serious demeanor on their faces. Perhaps they were feeling like me – loved the music but feeling terribly hungry!

 

 

 

It’s Always a Good Time for Jazz

Arriving at the Esplanade Concert Hall less than ten minutes before the doors closed, I was ushered to the Gallery Seats for the monthly family-friendly Beautiful Sunday concert.

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Yesterday afternnon’s concert featured Orchestra Collective which was formed in 2012 to draw musicians and audience to enjoy the magic of music together. The two conductors for the afternoon were Tay Yun Song and Gena Ng and their performance consisted of familiar tunes from popular films and standards by composers from various musical genres.

The first medley was from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, an opera that was performed on Broadway. My favourite song from this selection is Summertime, an aria famously recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz. The musician who stood out among the musicians was a trombonist whose playing felt to me more penetrating than the others’.

La La Land is a musical romantic comedy about a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress who meet and fall in love while pursuing their dreams. The song I like best from the movie is City of Stars and it is also included in this performance.

One big draw of this concert is Russian composer Shostakovich’s Waltz No 2. For me, it was the best piece performed; not least because Gena Ng took over the baton at this point. This piece was used on the soundtrack to the 1999 Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a married couple.

The medley of James Bond iconic tunes (like Goldfinger, Nobody Does It Better and Live and Let Die, besides the Theme) were played with a splash of jazz. Conductor Gena Ng again showed her competency and brought out the best in the musicians. One plus point about being in the Gallery Seats is that every little gesture or direction given by the conductor, be it with the hands, fingers, body or facial expression can be seen up close.

Tay Yun Song returned to the podium for the final piece, consisting of a medley of tunes from New York City and Cuban jazz. I didn’t recognise any of the tunes here, and the girl in front of me was looking at her handphone the whole time (I wondered what she was looking at as there was no reception in the hall.)

Despite there being not very enthusiastic applause at the end (and no shouts for an encore), Tay returned to play one (obviously prepared, as he didn’t even have to give any instruction to the musicians before the orchestra launched into the opening strains of Gershwin’s An American In Paris). I immediately perked up (but not the girl in front of me). There being no announcement of the pieces being played in this medley, I recognised only Swanee, I Got Rhythm and Fascinating Rhythm, besides the ubiquitous Rhapsody In Blue. There might have been others, but they were segued into another tune before I could identify the title; perhaps some of these were ‘S Wonderful, Embraceable You and Man I Love. This segment was the longest and best medley played at this concert, though I wished Rhapsody In Blue was performed in its entirety.

“So Here I Am” Concert

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I bought a ticket to Joanna Dong’s concert when it was announced that a second show would be added at 5pm on 1 July 2018. I wanted to witness her show-stopping vocal trumpeting and be dazzled by her jazzy Chinese numbers.

Known for her hosting capabilities (for TV travelogue shows) and her punctuality, her voice was heard at 5pm sharp, in a banter with multi-hyphenate Danny Yeo. Her opening number was I Want Your Love, the song that she sang during the second round of the 2017 Sing! China contest which shot her to fame, but without the vocal trumpeting.

After Honest Love Song (which she sang as a duet with Harlem Yu during the Sing!China contest), she began thanking the sponsors for this concert before embarking on the first of the many good-humoured banter and self-deprecating jokes with the audience. This is followed by her special cover of Jeff Chang’s I Can’t Resist You and a jazzy version of Sky Wu’s An Unique Love for a Special You (both newly minted in her latest EP).

She then began to regale the audience with stories of taking part in singing competitions from when she was 5 years old (with lots of photos flashed on the big screen on stage) before she spotted Mrs Carmee Lim (ex-Principal of Raffles Girls’ Secondary School) and thanked her for being such an inspiration to her and Ruth Ling (music producer at Red Roof Records). After that, she continued with her stories; this time, there were not only photographs and video footage, she even had her costumes (all sewn by her mum) brought on stage, and explained how her mother made some of them (eg the head gears) using a latex glue gun for the beading, and how these often earned her bonus points in competitions. She also revealed (by demonstrating) how she did all her own choreography and started Scatting from a very age (while singing Gao Shan Qing). She proceeded to ‘undress’ on stage before picking one flamenco-style skirt (which her mother took a week to sew specially for this concert) from the rack and put it on. At this point, she sang a medley of Mandarin and English songs, including I’m the One Who Loves You Most, How Could You Let Me Be Sad and Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.

The next two songs (which were unfamiliar to me) represent her life two years before the Sing!China contest, during which she travelled to remote villages where she met people with such extraordinary will power that really changed her perspectives and gave a boost to her courage and confidence. She mentioned that one of the songs, Long Way Round (written by Ruth Ling with lyrics by Chen Jia Ming), a reflective, folksy jazz number is also included in her new EP.

One of the songs she sang at the Finals of Sing!China is Applause, which was given a different take at this concert. She also sang the song that she didn’t get to sing – a Jay Chou number Fade Away coupled with My Funny Valentine, a medley suggested by Eason Chan (another judge). These came before the medley of Open Arms and Lover’s Tears.

The audience also participated in an impromptu lesson in jazz singing when Dong used a Chinese nursery rhyme Ke Ren Lai (‘The Guest is Here’) to explain how improvisation is like a call-and-response thing. A part of this was incorporated into her next song – an original composition for her by the Godfather of Jazz, Jeremy Monteiro (with lyrics penned by Dr Liang Wern Fook) – In Time For Snow.

She also sang her version of Doris Day’s By The Light of the Silvery Moon, sharing how the same song can have a different interpretation that is exciting, and how she hopes to build a bridge between jazz and pop music. Songs performed in this very energetic segment include The Grasshoppers’ Sorry Baby, Love Alliance and Frank Sinatra’s L-O-V-E.

After another video presentation and banter, Dong performed an English song (which I’m unfamiliar with but has meaningful lyrics like ‘nothing comes for free’) and Waikin Chao’s I Truly Give My Love. The piano solo accompanying this song (by musical director Chok Kerong), with its jazzy improvisation, is one of the highlights for me.

The last song she sang was a medley of Jay Chou’s Love is Straightforward and The Carpenters’ Top of the World (which they performed as a duet in the Finals of Sing!China). The long-awaited-for song that she sang during the audition round of Sing!China (Love Song 1990), with all its vocal-trumpeting, also came during the encore. This alone was worth the price of admission.

Despite her earlier declaration that she was nervous all the time on stage (‘like a swan that looks very calm but paddling furiously underneath’), Joanna Dong is really full of calm energy. She not only put everyone in the audience at ease but also displayed her prowess through her ability to sing non-stop for more than two-and-a-half hours with no special guest besides her dancers and musicians. (There was no intermission either.) I believe with her distinct phrasing and vocal acrobatics, she would go really far.

Eric Clapton and Friends in concert

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On this rainy afternoon, I decided to re-watch Eric Clapton and Friends in Concert. This was taped live at Madison Square, New York City in 1999. It features performances by Eric Clapton and his friends David Sanborn, Cheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige and Bob Dylan. This is a benefit concert to raise money for the drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, Crossroads Center, which Clapton opened the year before,  on the island of Antigua.

The video begins with a chat with Clapton and footage of the guitar auction in which Clapton gives his thoughts on his instruments and getting sober. The concert begins with his version of Hoochie Coochie Man with a blinding guitar solo. He then continues with River of Tears before partnering David Sanborn (saxaphonist) in Going Down Slow. His next guest is Cheryl Crow, with whom he performed My Favourite Mistake, Difficult Kind and Little Wing. This is followed by rhythm-and-blues singer Mary J. Blige (Be Happy/ You Bring Me Joy and Not Gon’ Cry).

The most interesting part of the concert is when Clapton himself performs his hits: Tears in Heaven, Change the World, Old Love, Wonderful Tonight and Layla. (My favourite being Tears in Heaven and Wonderful Tonight, both of which I can play indefinitely.)

The next most interesting part is when Bob Dylan comes on stage to perform Don’t Think Twice, It’s all Right and Crossroads (a duet with Clapton). Listening to both icons sing and watching the two guitar gods play the guitar together is unforgettable.

For the encore, Clapton performs Sunshine of Your Love, but I still think of him as Mr Wonderful.

Barbra Streisand – Timeless

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I first watched this DVD more than a decade ago, and again about five years ago. Last night, I watched it for the third time. It gets better every time, I don’t know why; but I know I’ll watch it again and again in the days to come.

Streisand herself had a part in writing, directing and producing this Timeless: A Live Concert, with the music arranged and directed by Marvin Hamlisch, best-known for The Way We Were, title song recorded by Streisand for the 1973 movie she starred with Robert Redford. (This is one of my favourite songs in the concert, together with Cry Me A River, As Time Goes By, Alfie, Evergreen, On A Clear Day, People, I Believe and Somewhere.)

The concert is set up like a play in two acts, opening with a dramatisation of her first amateur recording session in 1955 and tracing her career from her club days to Broadway and movies. Act two contains a number of Streisand’s duets amidst skits about time and timelessness.

There is an excellent choice of songs in line with the theme: about her forgotten recording (Alfie), about her feelings for her father (who died when she was only 15 months old) with two songs (Papa, Can You Hear Me? and A Piece of Sky – both from Yentl), about how fragile the world is (At The Same Time), about how the world can become a better place (I Believe), about her collaboration with Stephen Sondheim (Send In The Clowns); the duets (Every Time You Hear/ Auld lang Syne with the 13,000-strong audience, and video montage with Judy Garland in Happy Days Are Here Again & Get Help, Barry Gibb in Guilty, Bryan Adams in I Finally Found Someone, Celine Dion in Tell Him, Neil Diamond in You Don’t Send Me Flowers and even Frank Sinatra in I Got A Crush On You).

I find it most heartwarming the clip of Barbra Streisand singing The Carpenters’ Sing with her then 5-year-old son Jason Gould. (Jason is her only son from her first marriage to Elliot Gould; she and her second husband James Brolin (father of American actor Josh Brolin whom I remember from No Country for Old Men and who recently starred in Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War) are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Both Jason and James are in the audience and join her on stage at the finale/New Year (new millennium) countdown. (A side note: Jason recently recorded a duet, How Deep Is The Ocean, with his mother in Partners.) (Other duets – I Got A Crush On You with Frank Sinatra, I Finally Found Someone with Bryan Adams and  Barry Gibb – are also in the Partners album.)

There are many, many more songs – all sung with the clarity, soaring voice and penetrating timbre that is distinctively Barbra Streisand. There is also much footage of old newspaper settings, photographs, albums, movies, concert tours, recording sessions at the studios, TV appearances, her acting and directing in movies.

Movie Movie on the Wall

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The title of the Beautiful Sunday concert in the Esplanade Presents series this afternoon was very promising. The queue to enter the Concert Hall was extremely long, and I managed to get a seat at Circle 2 after standing in line and being ushered from one door to another for half an hour.

This afternoon’s concert featured the Mus’Art Youth Wind Orchestra, established in 1998 under the wing of the Jurong Green Community Club, bringing music to the people of all ages while providing an avenue for young musicians to experience community music making.

This afternoon’s concert kicked off with a timpani roll and a piece that did not sound familiar to me, with no introduction of any sort, a departure from other Beautiful Sunday concerts over the years. I was not surprised when almost half the house applauded before the end of the long piece because of a perfect cadence. Only much later did I recognise the very popular Can You Read My Mind.  It was only after the piece ended that it was announced that this was the Superman Suite. I did not know The Planet Krypton nor The March of the Villains nor any of the others because I never watched the Superman movies. I’m surprised the audience, which comprised of many young people, did not know the music either. (Otherwise, why would they clap midway through the piece?)

The next piece is a medley from James Bond movies. Other than the 007 Theme, I recognised only Goldfinger and Live and Let Die. Songs like For Your Eyes Only, Skyfall and Writing’s on the Wall were conspicuously missing.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence by Ryuichi Sakamoto was next. This song, from a 1983 British-Japanese drama film Merry Christmas on the Battlefield, is supposedly a staple of holiday music, but I didn’t recognise it either. However, I really like the piano solo at the opening.

Then came Adventure on Earth by John Williams from the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, written in 1982. It was a popular movie at that time, about the story of a boy befriending an alien stranded on earth.

Beauty and the Beast is the only song I recall with fondness the students in my secondary school music classes. Written by Alan Menken for the Disney animated feature in 1991 and sung by Celine Dion  (“Tale as old as time/ True as it can be…”), it was the only song I taught that received no complaints from anyone (other songs were either too ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘not nice’).

The epic soundtrack from Rocky was the last piece for the day. I think I watched this movie when I was an undergrad and I can’t recall any of it, except that I recall disliking Sylvester Stallone’s voice. There was an Alto Saxaphone solo, which was quite good.

As expected, the conductor returned for the anticipated encore – Maona, another Disney animated feature – as this piece was mentioned in the publicity pamphlet. Again, I had neither seen the film nor heard the soundtrack before; and with the audience getting restless (many squealing toddlers, playful children, yakking youths and bored teenagers), it quite dampened my mood though it obviously was supposed to be an energetic and lively piece.

I left the hall quickly, as soon as the doors were open and before the houselights came on, because I foresaw a delayed journey on the road because of the Trump-Kim Summit.